Scholars Say Mel Gibson's Action Flick Sacrifices the Maya Civilization to Hollywood
This is a problem because most scholars, while acknowledging the violence of this pre-Columbian society, universally applaud the Maya as among the New World's most sophisticated and subtle civilizations. They were, especially at their height around A.D. 800, remarkable Stone Agers who erected avant-garde cities and towering pyramids in the jungles of Mexico and Central America, created sumptuous art, practiced a precise astronomy and (yes, there's more) developed not only a written language, but a heady cosmology of time and space, built around a complex, ordered society of maize, kings and gods. The Maya flourished for a thousand years. They were winners.
But "Apocalypto's" focus on the more, shall we say, extreme hobbies of the Maya (i.e., removal of still operating body parts) is giving the community of Maya researchers the fits. The archaeologists are shouting: slander! They're circulating statements and editorials and e-mails.
"It is a shocking movie to us," says Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology at Brown University, and like the other Mayanists quoted in this article, a scientist who has spent years excavating sites in Mexico and Central America.
Houston and his colleagues say they are not just engaging in the predictable academic nitpicking about the historical accuracy of a potential Hollywood blockbuster--though they are also happy to point out the alleged goofs (the famous Bonampak murals are altered to show a warrior holding a dripping human heart when nothing was in his hand before)--and, in fact, they applaud the things Gibson and his designers got generally right (the groovy tattoos, facial scarification, colorful textiles, nasty weaponry, punky ear plugs, etc.)
The main gripe, says Houston, is that "Apocalypto" will make a bad impression on the general public. "For millions of people this might be their first glimpse of the Maya," he says. "This is the impression that is going to last. But this is Mel Gibson's Maya. This is Mel Gibson's sadism. This is not the Maya we know."
Some of the scientists have seen the movie, others have watched the trailers, read reviews or summaries. David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas, saw a rough cut of the film with Gibson and penned an unpublished editorial with Houston that suggests Gibson's Maya are so evil that they were "a civilization . . . that deserves to die."
Hansen defends the film, believing that his fellow Mayanists will be "pleasantly surprised." He says, "For the most part it is very accurate," and "I was amazed at the level of detail, the stone tools, gourds, iguana skins, strung up turkeys, just amazed." Yet, he adds, "there were things I didn't like that they went ahead and did anyway," and he agrees "there was a lot of artistic license taken," and that there is a mash-up of architectural styles, art, costume and ritual from different time periods during the millennium-long Maya reign.
And the sacrifice, the gore, the Maya as savage? The film does "give the feeling they're a sadistic lot," Hansen says. "I'm a little apprehensive about how the contemporary Maya will take it."