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By Alexander Provan

NEW YORK, 10 January 2007—Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto opens with a quote from historian Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it destroys itself from within." In his ongoing quest to create an ultra-violent genealogy of the corruption of humankind, from Jerusalem to New England, Scotland to Ancient Mayan civilization, Gibson might also be guided by German proto-fascist thinker Julius Langbehn.  "The real source of individuality was the Volk or the community," Langbehn argued in Rembrandt as Educator (1890), pondering Germany’s decay, "and only by restoring it, if necessary through compulsion, could freedom and greatness be achieved."

Paramount among Gibson’s recurrent themes is the idealization of simple, homogenous communities threatened by power-hungry outsiders armed with advanced weaponry and corrupted by the plague of modernity. Gibson’s settings are, for the most part, battlefields on which this competition plays out. As in BraveheartApocalypto effectively hijacks history in order to reinvent the battle -scene-cum-car-race blockbuster. And, in each, the effect is mesmerizing, although ultimately confused. Braveheart’s shires and New Age bagpipe soundtrack might as well be Apocalypto’s rainforests and New Age chant soundtrack. Apocalypto’s Mayan civilization has been stripped of historical specificity—despite vague prophecies uttered by elders, towering steppe pyramids, indecipherable rites and immaculately painted and pierced faces, Gibson is far more interested in parable than ethnography. This is a story about ourselves. 

Fernando Hernandez Perez as High Priest in  Mel Gibson's Apocalypto
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista

Apocalypto’s basic storyline is as follows: a serene village is ruthlessly attacked by a contemptible clan of mercenaries, who capture its inhabitants and march them to the urban center. The women are to be slaves and the men sacrificed to the gods. Like most critics of modernity, Gibson portrays the city as grotesque, decadent, ruled by greed and populated by debased masses. (The captured villagers, who have never seen the city, speak of a "stone-built place where the earth bleeds.")

The protagonist, Jaguar Paw, manages to avoid being sacrificed, then kills the son of his original captor while attempting to escape the city. The father, a fierce warrior with an inimitable bloodlust. Thus begins a chase scene that takes up the rest of the film: the bloodthirsty father ("I will peel his skin and have him watch me wear it") and his cadre trail Jaguar Paw relentlessly through the forest as he races to save his wife and child—he lowered them into a deep dry well for safekeeping during the attack but, it being the rainforest, the well doesn’t stay dry for long.

Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista

With Apocalypto Gibson has, undoubtedly, established himself as a ‘serious’ filmmaker, for what it’s worth. The film is replete with expert action sequences, dramatic evocations of a world beyond our own, masterfully wrought scenes of tenderness and terror, as well as a bevy of metaphysical ruminations. Apocalypto further distinguishes him as a visionary filmmaker of the conventional variety, one who estranges the usual Hollywood mechanisms in the service of revelation.

Jaguar Paw and his father Flint Sky in Apocalypto
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista

Where Gibson runs into trouble—on the highway in Malibu and in the theaters—is his courtship of a peculiar sort of ideology sketched out by Langbehn.  Epic jungle chase scenes aside, Apocalypto is essentially a meditation on what Gibson sees as the current putrefaction of Western civilization. Langbehn and his acolytes understood modernity as the trading of communal life for individual life, the betrayal of history, culture, nation and religion. The individual is immersed in a great mass of identical men whose only communal experience is that of a fragmented, alienating reality. Gibson gives shape to this nightmare: thousands of fearful Mayans gather at the base of a pyramid where their manipulative rulers are sacrificing captured villagers to placate the gods and stem the decay of their own society.

Gerardo Taracena in Mel Gibson's Apocalypto
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista

Apocalypto’s revelatory moment comes at the finale of the jungle chase: Jaguar Paw, exhausted and wounded, breaks through the edge of the jungle with his two remaining pursuers only a few feet behind. The camera faces him as he falls to his knees on the sand; surprisingly, the two warriors do the same. A minute passes before the camera pans right, revealing the Spanish armada anchored just off the coast. Jaguar Paw collects himself and walks away, while the two urban Mayans saunter toward the shore to greet their undoing. Later, as he and his family survey the scene, Jaguar Paw’s wife asks if they should meet and greet the newcomers.  He tells his wife it is better to turn away from the beach and return to the forest, promising "a new beginning."

Dalia Hernandez as Seven and Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw in Apocalypto
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista

Following Rousseau, who stirred the Romantic imagination by describing harmonious primitive societies and condemning modern individuals who "smile contemptuously at such old names as patriotism and religion, and consecrate their talents and philosophy to the destruction and defamation of all that men hold sacred," Langbehn suggested that society’s redemption could be achieved through a return to more primitive forms, a wholesale rejection of modernity. Germans could will themselves back to the perfect unity of village life, complete with home-brewed beer and a prudent patriarchy. This dream, like most, was an invention of the mind based on a subversion or perversion of reality (and history). Rousseau lamented the corruption of man but suggested the social contract as a reconciliation of an idealized past and an inescapable present, admitting the impossibility of returning to an age before reason and politics predominated.

With Apocalypto, Gibson seems to recognize that the march of progress cannot be reversed, the past cannot be salvaged, history is not malleable, one cannot simply return to the forest. In Gibson’s previous films there is always one man who transcends the whole, a savior. Here, messianic tendencies give way to prophetic pessimism: the savior can only hope to save himself and his family, and only until the next catastrophe befalls a society on its last legs. There are no new beginnings.

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Alexander Provan is a writer based in New York. He has contributed to the Associated Press from Latin America and last wrote on Race and Images in Bolivia for

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