Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

I Saw Apocalypto

Posted by Gerald on July 4, 2007

In celebration of July 4, the day that nothing happened, I saw some friends, did some blogging, started reading a (relatively) new history of the Late Roman Period while listening to British folk music, and then spent the evening watching the DVD of Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

The film has an incredibly simple story, about half of which seems to be either an homage to, or a blatant rip-off of, The Naked Prey.  It has lots of gory violence and some beautiful visuals of a Mayan city.  It also has the seemingly required gratuitous historical inaccuracies, like the appearance of Spanish ships in the last few minutes (Spaniards didn’t show up until about three centuries after the last Mayan city was deserted.)

I found an interesting review entitled “Is ‘Apocalypto’ Pornography” by a professor of archaeology and an expert on the Maya named Traci Arden.  You can read it here.

I found her review of the film quite worthwhile, but I saw something different.  She saw an essentially colonial message with the Maya depicted as decadent and in need of saving and the arrival of the Spanish as providing the saviors.  Certainly the Maya are depicted as decadent.  There are numerous depictions of bloody violence, especially in grisly sacrificial rites in the city.

I do not disagree with Prof. Arden about the colonial message here, but I think there was another message on top of it – a cautionary tale.  The first frame of the movie shows a quote from good ol’ Will Durant about how no great civilization was ever conquered from without until it had destroyed itself from within.  This is a transfer of the standard old Gibbon, etc… narrative about the “Fall” of the Roman Empire transferred to the Maya.  I do not think Gibson was trying to tell a colonial story (although I think he did) and I don’t think he was trying to tell a Roman story (although I think he borrowed one).  I think he was trying to tell a modern story about the “decline of the west.”  The moral is that we can’t be destroyed from without unless we destroy ourselves from within.  This is right in line with his general political and religious conservatism.

Where I got my personal dose of irony here was from my reading earlier in the day.  I have started Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians.  Heather is trying to take the startling work in the study of Late Antiquity and pull it together into a new narrative to replace the older “Rome and the Barbarians in endless struggle as Rome rots from within due to a) Christianity (old school) or b) economic decline (newer school) or c) fill in your favorite Roman rotting agent here; until such time as the barbarians bring down the empire.”  The more recent scholarship seems to point to a more nuanced and surprising story that I am just starting to read.  It was just funny to me to turn on this movie about Mayans and suddenly see Gibbon all over again.

As an action film, this is pretty good.  As a historical depiction of the Classical Maya it su… isn’t so good.  For some very cool visuals of life in a Maya city, it has stuff I’m going to steal for my World Civ course – but I’ll turn it off before we get to the temple.  However, if you are going to watch it, be sure to bring you Edward Said glasses with you.

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5 Responses to “I Saw Apocalypto”

  1. bridgett said

    I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Caligula, the Bob Guccione/Tinto Brass mess of a historical porn film? At the beginning of the film (or the cut I saw), to raise its rating and to insulate it from charges of gratuity, they ran a couple of aphorisms (a passage of Scripture? Some Gibbon? Maybe even Durant? Idon’t know, it’s been too long since I saw it) that was designed to transform it into a cautionary tale. It was still a piece of shit…

  2. Gerald said

    Yeah, I saw it. A horrible, film and not even horrible in a funny way. It didn’t even work as a porn film – and look at the cast! Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud, Helen Mirren, Malcolm McDowell… You would think that something could have been built out of this – but no.

    A friend of mine had a film professor who was an extra in the “brothel ship” scene.

  3. Steve said

    C’mon, y’all. Caligula wasn’t that bad… I mean, sure, that whole bit with the decapitating machine was a bit much. And, yeah, the ‘brothel ship’ was over the top. But… Aw, hell. I can’t even pretend it was good. I can say that it was better than Caligula 2, though…

    It’s interesting. I’m intrigued by this whole seeming sub-genre of films that really do push the limits of taste. It’s symptomatic of the medium: Re-creating gruesome acts as (ehem) “cautionary tales” without resorting to actual violence, sex, etc. (ala snuff). How many writers, directors, producers, have tried to push these boundaries?

    What’s fascinating is that they always fail. They try. But the results are always the same: unwatchable (pathetic or horrific).

  4. Gerald said

    There was a Caligula 2? Please tell me you are joking.

    The horror… the horror.

  5. Steve said

    Let’s just say there was a scene with a woman and a horse. You know that phrase, “Hung like a horse”? Well, watching Caligula 2 (the first 15 minutes is all I could stand) made me realize what that really means… And I will unfortunately never be the same again…

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