Fifty Shades Of Cinema: 2006 – Apocalypto

Fifty Shades of Cinema continues with Jonathon Dabell looking at Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto starring Rudy Youngblood.

The Contenders

Contenders for Film of the Year 2006 include Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s star-studded multi-narrative drama Babel; Paul Greengrass’s harrowing United 93 about the experiences of the passengers aboard one of the ill-fated 9/11 flights; and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, a Mexican-Spanish dark fantasy with remarkable visual appeal. Clint Eastwood directs two corresponding epic war movies – one Flags Of Our Fathers (about the American exploits at Iwo Jima), the other Letters From Iwo Jima (about the Japanese experiences in the same conflict). James Bond is excitingly rebooted in the slick and stylish Casino Royale; Will Smith stars in the powerful The Pursuit Of Happyness about Chris Gardner’s struggle with homelessness; Bill Condon adapts a popular two-act Broadway musical in the shape of the lavish Dreamgirls; and Sacha Baron Cohen brings Borat to the big screen in the spectacularly vulgar but incisive Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. Forest Whitaker is extraordinary as Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland; Helen Mirren is similarly remarkable as our good lady monarch in The Queen; and Alan Arkin is also in Oscar-winning form in the comedy road movie Little Miss Sunshine. Martin Scorsese is back in gangland territory with The Departed; Florian Henckel Von Donnersmarck makes a memorable debut with the German thriller Das Leben Der Anderen (aka The Lives Of Others); and the folks at Pixar score a hit with the anthromorphic animation Cars. Our Film of the Year award finds us embarking on a Mayan adventure quite unlike anything else ever made – Mel Gibson’s fascinating, violent and kinetic Apocalypto.


Apocalypto is a rich, fascinating and justifiably brutal account of events in the Mayan civilisation just prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. Filmed entirely in the Yucatec Mayan language, with a cast of unknown native American actors, the film strives for a remarkable level of historical authenticity. It successfully evokes the paradoxes of the Mayan people – socially hierarchical and technologically sophisticated on one hand; superstitious and uncompromisingly brutal on the other. Director Mel Gibson refuses to utilise CGI for his epic crowd scenes and Mayan city sets – instead, hundreds of extras and actual constructed sets are used, giving the film the sort of impressively authentic look of a Cecil B. DeMille movie.

A remarkable level of research has gone into the film – about costumes, customs, weapons, beliefs, sacrificial practises, hunting techniques and so on. Watching the film is almost like stepping into the real Mayan world in all its bloody glory. Some viewers have complained that the film ‘descends’ into a chase movie during its final third… it is true that it culminates with an extended chase sequence, but to say this somehow ruins what has gone before is extremely unfair. Apocalypto follows a classic three-act structure – Act One, introducing the main characters and their tribal existence; Act Two showing them attacked, enslaved and transported by a warmongering rival tribe; and Act Three charting the escape of one of the imprisoned Mayans and his subsequent pursuit through the jungle. This final act is an incredibly exciting and relentless sequence – shot with remarkable technical prowess, and as pure an example of kinetic action film-making as one could ever hope for. It reminds one very much of an equally fascinating and exciting 1966 film called The Naked Prey, only more graphic and intense.

Mayan hunter Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his tribes-people lead a well-structured existence in the remote rainforests. His wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) is heavily pregnant with what will be his second child, a young brother or sister for his existing son Turtle’s Run (Carlos Emilio Baez).

One morning, the village is violently attacked by a party of raiders led by the terrifying Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). After killing many of the tribe, Zero Wolf’s marauders enslave the survivors and march them from their burning homes. Just before being captured, Jaguar Paw manages to hide his wife and son in a cenote (deep pit) hoping that he will be able to return for them later.

The prisoners are taken to a great Mayan city where they discover they are to be sacrificed to the gods to appease them in the wake of failed crops and widespread plague. A sudden solar eclipse saves Jaguar Paw from a grisly end, and later he escapes by fleeing into the jungle. This prompts a huge manhunt by Zero Wolf and his warriors, a relentless chase which proves physically gruelling and hazardous at every stage.

Apocalypto’s strength lies in its extraordinary attention to detail and its powerful story-telling. The themes of honour, courage, family loyalty and the ‘human spirit’ are excellently developed. No expense is spared in the depiction of time and place; and no detail is spared in the harsh recreation of Mayan existence. The film is often a gruesome watch (what else would you expect from Gibson, cinema’s great conveyor of human pain?) but never gratuitous – horrible as many of the scenes are, they fit into the context of the narrative appropriately.

Aside from some dubious moments (Jaguar Paw runs like a marathon runner a few seconds after being fully impaled by a spear, for instance) and a slightly contrived ending, Apocalypto is a remarkable and highly impressive film. Two-thirds extraordinary anthropological study, one third hyper-kinetic action movie… and, as a whole, a seriously excellent film.

FMV Rating *****

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