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The Social And Cultural Messages In Apocalypto Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2036 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When one decides to put history on film, one must be prepared for substantial tradeoffs (Rosenstone 16). Films cannot convey historical events with pinpoint accuracy or with exact detail because films like this do not sell or are not financially practical. As a result, historical films are usually laden with historical inaccuracies that are on one hand emotionally and visually compelling and on the other hand, a distortion of a sense of history for many others. As historical films surrender accuracy for dramatic effect and brevity, historical truths become laced with political or cultural messages advertently or inadvertently placed by the producers of the movie (Christen and Haas viii). So what we have are exciting films backdropped against a real past but projecting a largely imagined one on the screen.

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Films such as Mel Gibson’s Apocalyto have captured significant attention for being both a cultural success and failure at the same time (Grandia). A modern depiction of the great Mayan civilization, Gibson assimilated cinematographic elements to create a chase film that is “not a historical document” as he said, but a social critique of government tyranny and abuse. The cultural preoccupations reflected in the film was heightened with the Iraq War, which divided American public opinion into camps which supported the war in the name of “civilizing” Iraqis through the restoration of democracy and those that fought the war because it was an illegitimate war waged against a sovereign people. On a personal level, Gibson was conscious in the film being a critique of the Bush administration’s megalomaniac tendencies. However, all throughout the film, Gibson’s personal religious convictions and political persuasions were perhaps inadvertently reinforced, causing critics to accuse him of racism and bigotry (Grandia). For all its historical inaccuracies (which Gibson admitted), the film projects American social and cultural realities as it struggles internally to deal with migration, terrorism, and the economic crisis – factors that threaten its status in the global hierarchy. Upon a closer look at the film, it is hypothesized that the film reflects America’s struggle with its own national identity – in relation to its history of imperialism and militarist culture, race and multiculturalism, and conservative theological roots. This paper addresses how these social and cultural preoccupations are portrayed in the film.


The story is set at the peak of the Mayan civilization when the nation, suffering from drought and disease, pillaged the surrounding tribes in search of slaves and human sacrifices to the gods. The central character, Jaguar Paw, is a hunter and family man, who along with many others of his tribe were taken captive. He protects his family by hiding them deep in a secluded hole and is subsequently saved from having his heart removed by the coming of a solar eclipse. What further ensues is a dramatic chase for survival as Jaguar Paw and his fellow tribe members were hunted down. He succeeds in killing off his enemies and returns to save his wife and child. However, his survival comes at a time when his tribe is decimated and his life changed forever.

Social and Cultural Messages in the Film

As earlier hypothesized, while Gibson may not have intentionally done so, several social and cultural messages were reflected in his film.

Justifying Colonialism

Cultural sensitivity is not a strong feature in Apocalypto. As critics have noted, Apocalypto’s inaccurate portrayal of ancient Mayan civilization justifies colonialism on two grounds 1) in order to subdue an extremely barbaric and inhumane culture that sacrifices its population en masse and 2) that the inherent barbarity of Mayan culture itself was enough to see to its destruction, making colonialism a benign historical contribution.

America’s preoccupation with empire and national prestige is reflected in this film in strong and subtle terms. The strong reference toward imperialism is illustrated by the brutal subjugation of a peaceful tribe by the strong armed force of the Mayan political center. Jaguar Paw’s tribe, harmonious and self-sufficient, found its very survival threatened because of the imperialistic ambitions of a more powerful tribe. However, we see that this once-glorious civilization was eventually destroyed. Given Gibson’s public declaration of opposition to the Iraq War and how he detested it, his own view may be that the film should embody how perilous the imperialistic ambitions of the U.S. are (Grandia). The eventual annihilation of the Mayan Civilization then was used as a testament and a reminder to Bush and to all of the dangers of bloodthirsty power. Colonialism in this movie was underscored with the arrival of Spanish missionaries off the coast toward the end of the film. The cultural message that could be inferred from this scene is that it was Christianity that actually saved and civilized the bloodthirsty Mayan civilization. This is analogous with America’s own brutal history of subjugating the Native American Indian tribes who were the original settlers of the American continent. Other cultural and political analogies could also be inferred. For instance, America’s preoccupation with policing the whole world and teaching democracy to so-called “rogue states” to the extent of military occupation is one. Another is America’s preoccupation with exporting the “free market” ideology to the entire world as the only viable economic system at the expense of developing nations unable to compete with industrialized nations in the world market. The most recent analogy would be the Iraq War, a war not sanctioned by the United Nations but crucial in advancing America’s petroleum interests in the Middle East.

Race and Multiculturalism

Gibson originally hoped to address America’s insatiable hunger for power by using the downfall of the Mayan civilization as analogy. The problem with this decision is that it reinforced racist epithets and cultural insensitivity. Advocates of multiculturalism strongly disagreed with how racist the film was (Schmidt). When you view the film, with its compelling imagery and graphic detail, one may be bound to conclude that the ancient Mayans were an inherently savage population. Gibson’s use of the Yucatec Maya language in telling his version of the demise of the Mayan civilization was effective in giving historical authenticity to the film. Gibson’s version of ritual sacrifice in the Maya has been lambasted by more than one historian. The Mayan civilization did not practice mass human sacrifices and when they do practice single human sacrifice, it was not random killing as suggested by the film (Grandia). Hence, the theme that came out of the film was not the critique of empire as Gibson had envisioned, but the emphasis on the barbarity of “others,” and the need to homogenize culture to conform to a Eurocentric standard (emphasized in the film with the coming of European missionaries).

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Multiculturalism has taken a hit in the heart of America with the immigration debate. In a bid for greater profits, corporatist interests have banked on tapping cheap immigrant labor, to the discontent of many Americans. A growing number of Americans have protested against the rising tide of immigrants in the country who are out to take their jobs, depress their wages, and contribute to uncontrollable population growth. Greater border security and more stringent immigration regulations have been hotly debated (Honey and Bass 14).

Gibson’s purported anti-Semitism has made racism an immediate accusation in Apocalypto. He created uproar among the Jewish community in his critically-acclaimed film Passion of the Christ which portrayed graphically how the Jews were the persecutors of Jesus Christ. Having a father who denies the existence of the Holocaust did not help to ease racist accusations in Apocalyto as well. Unfortunately, racism is not only Gibson’s cultural preoccupation, but America’s. Despite the triumphs gained by America’s civil rights movement, racism is still very existent today. The global war on terror has heightened racial tensions and fueled Islamophobia and intolerance for other cultures. The most notable public example is fundamentalist pastor Terry Jones who threatened to burn the Koran and proclaimed Islam and the devil’s religion, despite pressure from top officials and pleas from the White House (Stacy). Moreover, despite having elected the very first Black president in Barack Obama, racism is a ghost that America still confronts. There still remain a substantial number of racially-motivated white groups in America who opposed Obama’s election because he is black and who protest against his policies not for their lack of soundness but because is black. Racist Americans are very active in lobbying against legislation promoting racial equality and are unforgiving in their position. Media is populated by right-wing advocates against multiculturalism who are against affirmative action and other civil rights laws (Wallis).

Christian conservatism

Prominent in the film is the glorification of Christianity at the end of the film. After the viewer undergoes almost two hours of violence and gore nonstop, Spanish missionaries miraculously appear during the last minutes as if to rescue Jaguar Paw and his unfortunate tribe. Although subtle and short in appearance, the message of these scenes is powerful and undeniable. After all, why waste a few minutes of a film on a visually unappealing scene if it does not strike a core message to viewers? The final scene depicts Spaniards aboard the galleons crossing the waters off the coast, bearing crosses. After being convinced of the savagery and barbarity of the Mayans and relishing on how Jaguar Paw saved his wife and child, the sight of Spanish Christian missionaries allow the audience to be relieved. The message is: “At last, help has come. God-fearing Christians have come to us.” Out of the chaos and destruction of the Mayan civilization, the European missionaries have somehow arrived to make things right and restore peace. That the film ends there does not account for the equally brutal nature of subjugation the Natives endured under colonial rule. Colonialism by the Europeans was portrayed as benign while the internal colonization within the Mayan colonization was tantamount to genocide. The fact that the Spanish decimated almost 95% of the Mayans during their rule was left out (Grandia).

The Christian conservatism Gibson injected in the film embodies his own religious convictions. Being a professed devout Catholic, Gibson’s view was that the Mayan civilization was annihilated because of their bloodthirstiness and ungodliness. Religion, particularly Christianity, serves as a check against the excesses of power and departure from is perilous. Essentially, Gibson tows the line of religious fundamentalists that all social ills of America today are because it has forgotten its core spirituality. Morality has faded and replacing it has been decadence and wickedness. The film aims to remind America that the social problems it faces now is intertwined with its spiritual and moral struggle.


Apocalypto aimed to remind that a civilization unable to preserve its long-held traditions, beliefs, and spirituality will face destruction. Gibson inadvertently or advertently drew in America’s issues related to national identity – imperialism, race, and Christian morality – to serve this purpose. As a historical document, Apocalypto does not meet the accepted standards of accuracy and verifiability (Rosenstone 7). However, it depicts social and cultural preoccupations that America is currently faced with and as a result, triumphs in being a film that inspires and cultivates debate and discussion.


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