Directed by:Mel Gibson
Exactly two hundred years ago, American trapper John Coulter, after accompanying Lewis and Clark on their trip to the Pacific, was given permission to stay behind on their return to trap beavers in that part of eastern Montana then the ancestral home of the Blackfoot Nation. Not surprisingly, the Indians were irritated by his enterprise, especially when his partner shot and killed one of them. They took Coulter captive, stripped him naked and for sport, gave him a brief head-start before chasing him across the miles of open plain which separated him from the potential shelter and safety of the Jefferson River. Coulter was young, swift and possessed of understandable motivation; he outran all but one of his pursuers, turned and killed the last with his own spear, then hid under a pile of driftwood in the river for hours as the Indians sought unsuccessfully to find him and extract their revenge. A week later he stumbled into an early frontier trading post, sunburned, hungry, but alive; his story quickly became a legend among that small band of early American trappers in the west known as “mountain men”.
One hundred and sixty years later, actor Cornel Wilde, (leading man in scores of Hollywood studio costume epics in the 40’s and 50’s) decided to star in and direct a recreation of Coulter’s epic tale, but production costs, tax breaks and logistical support from the South African Government caused him to switch the script to an African setting and shoot the movie there. The result was a modest but sturdily compact action film Wilde entitled The Naked Prey that drew critical praise and good box-office when it opened in 1966. Thus does truth first become fictionalized and then subsequently made the basis of pretentious sociological myth-making in Apocalypto, Mel Gibson’s latest directorial effort. Gibson insists that his film is meant as a comparison of today’s societal decay with that of a long-departed culture, but what he delivers is just an expensive variation on Wilde’s far more competent and entertaining piece of action-oriented escapism.
Set in the lowland rain forests of the Yucatan Peninsula in what Gibson’s story suggests are the last days of the Mayan Empire, Apocalypto traces the fortunes of Jaguar Paw, (Rudy Youngblood) a young, virtuous husband and father who’s captured by raiders after the massacre of his small village. While he’s successful in hiding his pregnant wife and toddler son in a pit before they too can be enslaved, Jaguar Paw and those adults not killed in the attack are bound together and taken to the site of a large Mayan temple that’s used for slave auctions and religious ceremonies involving ritual human sacrifice. The decadence of the Mayan’s royal family and the speeches of the high priest as he rips out his victim’s hearts before beheading them may form Gibson’s extended commentary on societies that misuse religion to devour their own in pursuit of divine redemption, but these images are also designed to appeal to the atavistic interests of his audience; is he really going to have the villainous priest extract those hearts and hold them proudly up to view? Will the decapitated heads bounce a bit as they come tumbling down the steps of the sacrificial alter? Is this really the way those barbarians lived? Isn’t it just too deliciously disgusting?
As he’s about to become fodder for the appeasement of the gods, a solar eclipse occurs, staying Jaguar Paw’s open heart surgery; the authorities determine instead that he and the remaining potential victims be required to “run the gauntlet”. This provides our hero with the opportunity to escape back into the forest, where he’s pursued with bloodthirsty intensity by a score of the temple guard. Can he elude them in time to rescue his wife and son from the wild animals and flood waters which threaten their hiding place?
It should come as no surprise that Jaguar Paw does just that, outwitting his pursuers one moment and dispatching them the next. Armed only with his intimate knowledge of the forest and the survival skills taught him by his father Flint Sky, (the peaceful village leader whose jugular vein was gratuitously slit during the film’s initial and inexplicably gory massacre) the ingenious Jaguar Paw his eliminates his pursuers one by one, rescues his growing family, (Mom’s given birth - - underwater yet - - during his absence) and sets out to begin a new life deep inside the protective shelter of his ancestral home.
It takes the director nearly half of Apocalypto’s 2 and ¼ hour running time to get to this long and involved chase sequence; knowing Gibson’s predilection for mixing sanguineous detail with ponderous symbolism, it will surprise no one that Apocalypto comes equipped with impalings, beheadings, floggings of various kinds, multiple rapes and the ingestion of wild boar testicles, the last thrown in by way of a practical joke. All this savagery is book-ended by a portentous opening quote from historian Will Durant about the decline of civilizations and the film’s penultimate scene which employs a crucifix to indicate the next imperial power the surviving natives will have to endure. In between, the screenplay provides enough in the way of animist myth and prophetic rant about dire future events to buttress Gibson’s contention that his movie concerns the inevitable destruction of societies which abuse and constrain the free and independent lives of their subjects. Liberals take note….
But give the devil his due; the director uses his Mexican locations wonderfully, peoples his cast exclusively with native North and South Americans, employs real Mayan dialects, (with often ham-fisted sub-titles) and pays meticulous attention to costume, production design and authentic ritual detail. The result compares favorably with director Terrance Malick’s recreation of the Indian culture invaded by Capt. John Smith and the first English settlers of Virginia in last year’s The New World, providing audiences here with yet another window into a long-lost way of life that anthropologists still scour for clues about the rise and fall of this mysterious culture. (Mayan body piercing and tattooing make the artistry of contemporary N.F.L. & N.B.A. athletes pale by comparison.)
The chase sequences work well because they’re briskly paced and played with a deadly purpose that’s properly developed during the movie’s first reel and convincingly delivered by the film’s unknown cast. Veteran Aussie cinematographer Dean Semler, (We Were Soldiers, The Alamo) employs Apocalypto’s lush jungle locations with particular skill, but Gibson’s decision to utilize high definition technology rather than convention film stock trades the clarity of the film’s images for increased shooting flexibility, giving the movie a soft, slightly blurred look that detracts from its visual impact.
But Apocalypto’s bestial savagery proves it’s artistic undoing; it’s so unrelenting that it ultimately amounts to little more than a variation on the sadomasochism which sullied The Passion of the Christ, the director’s last picture. In that film, Gibson proved to contemporary audiences what Cecil B. DeMille demonstrated years ago - - that violence and spectacle, when larded with a suitably vulgarized religious theme, makes for big box office.
As a major Hollywood star, Gibson has played in a number of films that employ graphic violence, (Payback, The Patriot, Lethal Weapon) and his directorial work, (Braveheart & The Passion of the Christ) revels in the depiction of ritual savagery. As an actor he’s chosen roles in which he’s surrounded by and a willing participant in not only violent acts, but the debilitating pestilence of revenge in which it so often results; he returns to those themes here, behind the camera, with near obsessive focus, either because of a canny eye towards the bottom line or some obsessive fascination hinted at in the public expressions of his own psyche. Apocalypto provides a crass example of the former along with yet more disturbing evidence of the latter.
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