April 06, 2010

Indians in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear

As I said in my review of The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, this made-for-TV movie is pretty bad. Alas, it has two extended scenes featuring Natives or Native lore. Let's take a look:

Amazon Indians

Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle) and his guardian Nicole Noone (Sonya Walger) parachute into the Amazon jungle. They're soon surrounded by Amazon Indians with bows and arrows.

  • The heroes identify the Indians as headhunters and even pass a head mounted on a pole. This is a gratuitous stereotype that adds nothing to the plot. I guess it's suppose to frighten people for a few seconds until the next scene.

  • Carsen thinks the Indians are speaking a blend of three Native languages that he names. No, it turns out, they're speaking Portuguese. This isn't stereotypical, but it's stupid. How does a language expert confuse two radically different kinds of languages?

  • The Indians' clothing and huts look reasonably authentic. I presume Mexican actors play the Indians since the jungle scenes were filmed near Veracruz, Mexico. They look reasonably authentic also.

  • Having proved to be friendly, the Indians do a "Native mating dance" called the Mongo Dance for the visitors. This doesn't look bad, but the context is problematical for several reasons:

    1) The dance conveys the stereotypical idea that the Indians have no real culture. All they have is a primitive physical ritual like something an animal would do. A strutting peacock, perhaps.

    2) Most tribal dances are about propitiating the gods and spirits. I've never heard of a tribe's having a "mating dance."

    3) It's doubtful Indians would do something as intimate as a mating dance before a pair of strangers they'd just met.

  • Later that evening, Flynn imitates the Mongo Dance by using two bell-shaped items as horns. This looks as lame as an antler dance on the old Saturday Night Live shows. It seems unlikely that someone trained in anthropology would mock a Native dance so readily.

  • The Maya

  • Flynn discovers the location of the second object they're looking for. He tells us the following legend:
  • When the Toltecs invaded Chichén Itzá, it was rumored that a group of Mayan priests fled Mexico with their entire treasury. As the story goes, they built a Mayan temple deep in the Amazon jungle to hide the treasure--never to be heard from again.A few problems with this:

    1) The Toltecs didn't conquer Chichén Itzá. Archaeologists aren't sure whether another Maya city-state conquered it or the residents simply abandoned it.

    2) Why would Maya priests flee a couple thousand miles through countless jungles and other obstacles to another continent? Why not join another Maya city-state nearby or start their own?

    3) The Maya didn't have wheeled carts or beasts of burdens. Each priest would've had to carry the heavy gold himself over the entire trek.

    4) Traveling that far on foot with a valuable treasure would be like inviting the hundreds of tribes along the way to rob and kill you.

  • Flynn and Nicole come face to face with a giant Maya pyramid. It's bigger than any Maya pyramid ever discovered and it's in plain sight, not overgrown with vegetation. Uh, has anyone heard of satellite photographs? Google Earth? No way any object this big has gone undiscovered anywhere on the planet.

  • The pyramid's exterior is covered with obviously fake Maya glyphs.

  • Trying to find a way in, Flynn says the Maya were the first to discover that "constellations make a complete revolution around the galaxy" every 25,765 years. Actually, no, the Milky Way Galaxy rotates every 255 million years.

  • The writers may have been thinking of the precession of the equinoxes, which happens about every 26,000 years. New Agers claim the Maya knew about this, but it probably isn't true:There has been speculation that the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is somehow calibrated against the precession, but this view is not held by professional scholars of Mayan civilization.Into the Temple of Doom

  • Triggering a trap door, Flynn and Nicole fall into a "Mayan death chamber." It's a room containing a pit with spikes and a wall that starts closing in on them.

  • It's absurd that all these mechanisms are in perfect working order after 700 years of neglect. And the "death chamber" and subsequent traps imply that the Maya were as deadly as the aforementioned Amazon "headhunters." Every Indian in The Librarian is implicitly a killer.

  • Discerning the room's secret, Flynn says:
  • This chamber is an exact replica of their Great Temple of Teotihuacán. Three hundred quahuitls by 20 quahuitls.Another site helpfully picks apart this claim:Teotihuacan was not a Mayan city, but rather the hub of a separate civilization (themselves called the Teotihuacan). It was in central Mexico, hundreds of miles from the Mayan area in the Yucatan Peninsula.

    Flynn gives the size of the chamber in the Mayan temple as "300 quahuitls by 20 quahuitls." But the quahuitl was an Aztec unit of measurement, and was not used by the Maya.

    Flynn says that the chamber in the Mayan temple is 300 quahuitls long. A quahuitl is approximately 2.5 meters, so 300 quahuitls would be 750 meters, or nearly half a mile. The chamber he and the others are in is large, but not that large.
  • As we see in the death chamber and the subsequent corridor, the temple contains no fallen or crumbling stone, no accumulated dirt, no plant growth. And no bones of the many people who undoubtedly died trying to rob it. It looks as pristine as, well, a movie set.

  • To get over the pit, Flynn steps onto thin air and stands. He says it's actually an optical illusion produced by a mirror, adding that the Maya were "the first tribe in the Americas to use them."

    Maybe so, but the Maya mirrors were polished stone, not glass. I don't think they could produce optical illusions. And in one shot, we see Flynn from beneath the mirror, which implies it's transparent.

  • Down the Corridor of Death

  • In the corridor past the pit, Flynn accidentally triggers barrages of arrows and swinging pendulums. Again, they're in perfect working order after 700 years. Again, they imply how deadly the Maya were. This leads to one of the silliest scenes in the movie:

  • Flynn and Nicole reach two piles of gold artifacts. The piles aren't enormous, but still. Did 200 priests each carry 100 pounds of gold 2,000 miles? It seems unlikely.

  • Flynn triggers the last trap and an Olmec-style head almost hits them. As with the references to the Toltec and Aztec, Olmec is a different culture. Mesoamerican cultures aren't interchangeable, people.

  • The Librarian: Quest for the Spear isn't quite as ridiculous as National Treasure: Book of Secrets, but it's in the same ballpark. Compared to it, Raiders of Lost Ark look like a masterpiece of realism and authenticity.

    And the stupid thing is that the writers obviously did some research into Native culture and history. If they had the facts in front of them, how and why did they garble them so badly? Why not make a tiny additional effort to get them right?

    It's as though 12-year-olds mixed and matched an encyclopedia's entries. It's stupid, stereotypical writing that ruins the movie for anyone with more than a grade-school knowledge of science. What a pathetic waste.

    More mistakes in The Librarian: Quest for the Spear:

    Goofs for The Librarian: Quest for the Spear

    Where is the logical sense of this movie? (spoilers)

    For more on the subject, see Indiana Jones and the Stereotypes of Doom and The Best Indian Movies.


    Juliet said...

    TVTropes has an entry on this sort of ethnic mashup - 'Mayincatec'.

    I did not see the movie, so I can only say that anyone now trying for a modern version of a pulp plotline has NO EXCUSE for getting things wrong. Falling back on the pulp cliches is simply lazy writing.

    After all, entering an ancient building has plenty of hazards of its own. If there MUST be traps, the writer could have some fun with the idea: the stone that sinks when stepped on triggers -- nothing (the ground had settled underneath); the obvious death-trap doesn't work (discovered after Our Heroes v-e-r-y c-a-r-e-f-u-l-l-y edge around it), but then some idiot leans on or kicks a rotten support, and so on.

    Then, when they reach the treasure, have the gold turn out to be a plausible amount, but the REAL treasure is something else entirely (such as, in this case, codices).

    Rob said...

    Good ideas, Juliet. Yes, the writers are being lazy and unoriginal when they use the same old death traps. Your way sounds much more interesting.

    P.S. I have my own page on these "lost civilization" tropes at Indiana Jones and the Stereotypes of Doom.