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Apocalypto is a epic film directed by Mel Gibson. Set in Central America, during the declining period of the Maya civilization, Apocalypto depicts the journey of a Mesoamerican tribesman who must escape human sacrifice and rescue his family after the capture and destruction of his village.

The film features a cast of Native American descent, and its Yucatec Maya dialogue is accompanied by subtitles.


The film begins with an epigraph from Will Durant: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."

While hunting tapir in the Mesoamerican jungle in the early 16th Century, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), his father Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), and their fellow tribesmen encounter a procession of traumatized and fearful refugees. Speaking in Yucatec Maya, the procession's leader explains that their lands have been ravaged, and asks for Flint Sky's permission to pass through the jungle. When Jaguar Paw and his tribesmen return to their village, Flint Sky tells his son not to let the procession's state of fear seep into him. At night, the tribe's elder tells the village a fable of man forever unable to fill his want, despite having been given the capabilities of all of the animals. The villagers follow the story with music and dance, leaving Jaguar Paw to ponder.

The next morning, Jaguar Paw wakes from a nightmare to see strangers enter the village and set the huts ablaze. The raiders, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo), attack and subdue the villagers. Jaguar Paw slips out with his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernández) and his little son Turtles Run, lowering them on a vine into a small cave (a chultun, shaped something like a well) to hide them. Jaguar Paw returns to the village to fight the raiders but is subdued with the rest of the tribe. A raider whom Jaguar Paw attacks and almost kills, the vicious Middle Eye (Gerardo Taracena), slits Flint Sky's throat while Jaguar Paw helplessly watches. His last words to him are to not be afraid. Middle Eye mocks Jaguar Paw by calling him 'Almost' for not being able to kill him. Before the raiders leave the village with their prisoners, one suspicious raider severs the vine leading into the ground cave, trapping Jaguar Paw's wife and son within, in part due to Jaguar Paw's staring gaze towards the cave.

The raiders and their captives trek toward the Maya city, encountering razed forests, falling trees, failed maize crops, slaves producing plaster, and the sick and dying. A small diseased girl prophesies that a man bringing the jaguar will bring the raiders to those who will scratch out the earth and end their world. In the city's outskirts, the female captives are sold as slaves and the males are escorted to the top of a step pyramid. The high priest sacrifices several captives by decapitating them after pulling out their beating hearts. When Jaguar Paw is about to be sacrificed, a solar eclipse (also prophesied by the girl) stays the priest's hand. He looks at the king, sitting nearby, and the two share a smile while the people below panic at the phenomenon. The priest declares the sun god Kukulkan is satisfied with the sacrifices. He asks Kukulkan to let light return to the world and the eclipse passes. The crowd cheers in amazement and the priest orders that the remaining captives be disposed of.

Zero Wolf takes the villagers to an amphitheater. The captives are released in pairs and forced to run the length of the open space within the amphitheater to give Zero Wolf's men target practice, with a cynical promise of freedom should they reach the end of the field alive. However, Zero Wolf's son, Cut Rock, is sent to the end of the field to "dispose of" any survivors. The raiders target them with javelins, arrows, and slingstones as they run. Jaguar Paw is struck by an arrow through the abdomen but reaches the end of the field and breaks off the arrowhead. As Cut Rock approaches to finish him off with an obsidian blade, Jaguar Paw shoves the broken arrow into Cut Rock's throat. As Cut Rock bleeds out with Zero Wolf easing him into the next life, Jaguar Paw escapes through a withered maize field and an open mass grave. The enraged Zero Wolf and his raiders pursue Jaguar Paw into the jungle and back toward Jaguar Paw's home. Along the way, one of the raiders is killed by a black jaguar that has been disturbed by Jaguar Paw. As he flees, Jaguar Paw jumps over a high waterfall and survives, declaring from the riverbank below that the raiders are now in his homelands.

Zero Wolf's raiders jump the waterfall as well, then fall to both the forest's elements and Jaguar Paw's traps. A heavy rain sets in, which begins to flood the ground cave in which Jaguar Paw's wife and son are still trapped. Jaguar Paw kills one raider with a poisoned dart and bludgeons Middle Eye in hand-to-hand combat and kills Zero Wolf by leading him into a trap meant for hunting tapir. He is chased by two remaining raiders out to a beach where they encounter Hernán Cortés and his men making their way ashore in boats. The amazement of the raiders allows Jaguar Paw to flee. He returns into the forest to pull his wife and son out of the flooded pit where they are hiding around the time when Seven gives birth to a child. He returns in time to save the family, and sees that his wife has given birth to a healthy second son. As the family walks near the coastline, Jaguar Paw's wife asks what the strange objects near the shore are. Jaguar Paw responds only that "they bring men." Jaguar Paw and his family go deeper into the forest, "to seek a new beginning," leaving the Spanish who are anchored in ships off the beach.



Screenwriter and producer Farhad Safinia first met director Mel Gibson while working as an assistant during the post-production of The Passion of the Christ. Eventually, Gibson and Safinia found time to discuss "their mutual love of movies and what excites them about moviemaking".

Gibson said they wanted to "shake up the stale action-adventure genre", which he felt was dominated by CGI, stock stories and shallow characters and to create a footchase that would "feel like a car chase that just keeps turning the screws."

Gibson and Safinia were also interested in portraying and exploring an ancient culture as it existed before the arrival of the Europeans. Considering both the Aztecs and the Maya, they eventually chose the Maya for their high sophistication and their eventual decline.

The two researched ancient Maya history, reading both creation and destruction myth, including sacred texts such as the Popul Vuh. In the audio commentary of the film's first DVD release, Safinia states that the old shaman's story (played by Espiridion Acosta Cache who is an actual modern day Maya storyteller) was modified from an authentic Mesoamerican tale that was re-translated into the Yucatec Maya language by the young Maya professor Hilario Chi Canul who also acted as a dialogue coach during production. As they researched the script, Safinia and Gibson traveled to Guatemalamarker, Costa Ricamarker and the Yucatán peninsulamarker to scout filming locations and visit Maya ruins.

Striving for a degree of historical accuracy, the filmmakers employed a consultant, Richard D. Hansen, a specialist in the Maya, assistant professor of archaeology at Idaho State Universitymarker, and director of the Mirador Basin Project, an effort to preserve a large swath of the Guatemalan rain forest and its Maya ruins. Gibson has said of Hansen's involvement: "Richard's enthusiasm for what he does is infectious. He was able to reassure us and make us feel secure that what we were writing had some authenticity as well as imagination."

Gibson is interested in using unfamiliar languages on film, having already used Aramaic, Latin and Hebrew in his religious blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. In Apocalypto, the dialogue is entirely in the Yucatec Maya language. Gibson explains: "I think hearing a different language allows the audience to completely suspend their own reality and get drawn into the world of the film. And more importantly, this also puts the emphasis on the cinematic visuals, which are a kind of universal language of the heart."


Mel Gibson chose a cast of actors who were from Mexico Citymarker, the Yucatánmarker, or who were descendants of indigenous peoples of Canadamarker and the United Statesmarker. It was important for the director that "these characters have to be utterly believable as pre-Columbian Mesoamericans." Some of the youngest and oldest cast members were Maya who knew no language besides Maya and had never seen a tall building before.

Gibson explained that he wanted to cast unknown actors so that they could play certain mythic types without the audiences associating them with prior roles. "In terms of casting it, you always have many choices. You can go against type, or with type. On this one I have purposely chosen an archetypal selection, casting it right with type, because of the obscure dialect and the unfamiliar period in which the story is set." In addition to the lead actors, some scenes required as many as 700 extras.

Costumes and makeup

The production team consisted of a large group of make-up artists and costume designers who worked to recreate the Maya look for the large cast. Led by Aldo Signoretti, the make-up artists daily applied the required tattoos, scarification, and earlobe extension to all of the onscreen actors. According to advisor Richard D. Hansen, the choices in body make-up were based on both artistic license and fact: "I spent hours and hours going through the pottery and the images looking for tattoos. The scarification and tattooing was all researched, the inlaid jade teeth are in there, the ear spools are in there. There is a little doohickey that comes down from the ear through the nose into the septum – that was entirely their artistic innovation." An example of attention to detail is the left arm tattoo of Seven, Jaguar Paw's wife, which is a horizontal band with two dots above – the Mayan symbol for the number seven.

Simon Atherton, an English armorer and weapon-maker who worked with Gibson on Braveheart, was hired this time to research and provide the Maya weapons. Gibson let Atherton play the cross-bearing Franciscan friar who appears on a boat at the end of the film.

Set design

Mel Gibson wanted Apocalypto to feature sets with actual buildings rather than relying on computer-generated images. Most of the step pyramids seen at the Maya city were models designed by Thomas E. Sanders (Braveheart, Saving Private Ryan)[164104]. Sanders explained his approach, "We wanted to set up the Mayan world, but we were not trying to do a documentary. Visually, we wanted to go for what would have the most impact. Just as on Braveheart, you are treading the line of history and cinematography. Our job is to do a beautiful movie."

However, while many of the architectural details of Maya cities are correct, they are blended from different locations and eras, a decision Farhad Safinia said was made for aesthetic reasons. While Apocalypto is set during the post-classic period of Maya civilization, the central pyramid of the film comes from the classic period, which ended in A.D. 900. Furthermore, the temples are in the shape of those of Tikalmarker in the central lowlands classic style but decorated with the Puuc style elements of the north west Yucatan centuries later. Richard D. Hansen comments, "There was nothing in the post-classic period that would match the size and majesty of that pyramid in the film. But Gibson … was trying to depict opulence, wealth, consumption of resources."

The set design of Apocalypto also blended elements of Maya art from different eras and locations. The mural in the arched walkway combined elements from the Maya codices, the Bonampakmarker murals (over 700 years earlier than the film's setting), and the San Bartolo murals (some 1500 years earlier than the film's setting).


Gibson filmed Apocalypto mainly in Catemacomarker, San Andrés Tuxtlamarker, and Paso de Ovejas in the Mexicanmarker state of Veracruzmarker. The waterfall scene was filmed on a real waterfall called Salto de Eyipantla, located in San Andrés Tuxtlamarker. Other filming by second-unit crews took place in El Peténmarker, Guatemalamarker, and in Great Britainmarker. The film was originally slated for an August 4, 2006, release, but Touchstone Pictures delayed the release date to December 8, 2006, due to heavy rains and two hurricanes interfering with filming in Mexicomarker. Principal photography ended in July 2006.

Apocalypto was shot on high-definition digital video, using the Panavision Genesis camera. During filming, Gibson and cinematographer Dean Semler employed the use of Spydercam, a suspended camera system allowing shooting from atop. This equipment was used in a scene in which Jaguar Paw leaps off a waterfall.

A number of animals are featured in Apocalypto, including a Baird's tapir and a black jaguar. Animatronics or puppets were employed for the scenes injurious to animals.

Distribution and marketing

While Mel Gibson financed the film through his Icon Productions, Disney signed on to distribute Apocalypto for a fee in certain markets. The publicity for the film started with a December 2005 teaser trailer that was filmed before the start of principal photography and before Rudy Youngblood was cast as Jaguar Paw. As a joke, Gibson inserted a subliminal cameo of the bearded director in a plaid shirt with a cigarette hanging from his mouth posing next to a group of dust-covered Maya. A clean-shaven Gibson also filmed a Mayan-language segment for the introduction of the 2006 Academy Awards in which he declined to host the ceremony.On September 23, 2006, Gibson pre-screened the unfinished film to two predominantly Native American audiences in the US state of Oklahomamarker, at the Riverwind Casino in Goldsbymarker, owned by the Chickasaw Nation, and at Cameron University in Lawtonmarker. He also did a pre-screening in Austinmarker, Texasmarker, on September 24 in conjunction with one of the movie's stars, Rudy Youngblood. In Los Angelesmarker, Gibson screened Apocalypto and participated in a Q&A session for Latin Business Association and for members of the Maya community. Due to an enthusiastic response from exhibitors, Disney opened the film on more than 2,500 screens in the United States.



According to Mel Gibson, the Mayan setting of Apocalypto is "merely the backdrop" for a more universal story of exploring "civilizations and what undermines them."
Although it is not directly expressed in the film, the background to the events depicted is the collapse of the Maya civilization, which the filmmakers researched before writing. According to historian Michael D. Coe, "Maya civilization in the Central Area reached its full glory in the early eighth century, but it must have contained the seeds of its own destruction, for in the century and a half that followed, all its magnificent cities had fallen into decline and ultimately suffered abandonment. This was surely one of the most profound social and demographic catastrophes of all human history." Coe lists "environmental collapse" as one of the leading causes of the fall of the great empire, alongside "endemic warfare", "overpopulation", and "drought". "There is mounting evidence for massive deforestation and erosion throughout the Central Area. The Maya apocalypse, for such it was, surely had ecological roots," explains Coe. The corrosive forces of corruption are illustrated in specific scenes throughout the movie. Excessive consumption can be seen in the extravagant lifestyle of the upper-class Maya, their vast wealth contrasted with the sickly, the extremely poor, and the enslaved. Environmental degradation is portrayed both in the exploitation of natural resources such as the over-mining and farming of the land, but also through the treatment of people, families and entire tribes as resources to be harvested and sold to slavery. Political corruption is seen in the leaders' manipulation, the human sacrifice on a large scale, and the slave trade. The film shows slaves being forced to create the lime stucco cement that covered their temples, an act that some historians consider a major factor in the Maya decline. One calculation estimates that it would take five tons of jungle forestry to make one ton of quicklime. Historical consultant Richard D. Hansen explains, "I found one pyramid in El Miradormarker that would have required nearly 650 hectares (1,600 acres) of every single available tree just to cover one building with lime stucco... Epic construction was happening... creating devastation on a huge scale"

The filmmakers intended this depiction of the Maya collapse to have relevance for contemporary society. The problems "faced by the Maya are extraordinarily similar to those faced today by our own civilization" co-writer Safinia stated during production, "especially when it comes to widespread environmental degradation, excessive consumption and political corruption." Gibson himself has stated that the movie is an attempt at illustrating the parallels between a great fallen empire of the past and the great empires of today, saying "People think that modern man is so enlightened, but we're susceptible to the same forces – and we are also capable of the same heroism and transcendence." The film serves as a cultural critique – in Hansen's words, a "social statement" – sending the message that it is never a mistake to question our own assumptions about morality.

However, Gibson has also stated that he wanted the film to be hopeful rather than entirely negative. While the title, Apocalypto, connotates destruction in English, Gibson has defined the title as "a new beginning or an unveiling — a revelation"; he says "Everything has a beginning and an end, and all civilizations have operated like that." The precise translation of the Greek word (αποκαλύπτω or apokalýptō) is in fact a verb meaning "I uncover," "disclose," or "reveal." Gibson has also said a theme of the film is the exploration of primal fears.


The film was released in the United Statesmarker on December 8, 2006, to generally positive reviews from film critics. Richard Roeper and guest critic Aisha Tyler on the television show Ebert & Roeper gave it "two big thumbs up" rating. Michael Medved gave Apocalypto four stars (out of four) calling the film "an adrenaline-drenched chase movie" and "a visceral visual experience." Overall, the review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 115 out of the 179 reviews they tallied were positive for a score of 64% and a certification of "fresh".

As the film opened, there were rumors that the Mexican populace would riot and protest the film. But the film registered a wider number of viewers than Perfume and Rocky Balboa. It even displaced memorable Mexican premieres such as Titanic and Poseidon. According to polls performed by the newspaper Reforma, 80% of polled Mexicans labeled the film as "very good" or "good".

Apocalypto gained some passionate champions in the Hollywood community. Actor Robert Duvall called it "maybe the best movie I've seen in 25 years." Director Quentin Tarantino said, "I think it's a masterpiece. It was perhaps the best film of that year. I think it was the best artistic film of that year." Actor Edward James Olmos said, "I was totally caught off guard. It's arguably the best movie I've seen in years. I was blown away."


Apocalypto has been recognized with numerous awards and nominations. For his role as producer and director of the film, Mel Gibson was given the Trustee Award by the First Americans in the Arts organization. Gibson was also awarded the Latino Business Association's Chairman's Visionary Award for his work on Apocalypto on November 2, 2006, at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Los Angelesmarker, Californiamarker. At the ceremony, Gibson said that the film was a "badge of honor for the Latino community." Gibson also stated that Apocalypto would help dismiss the notion that "history only began with Europeans".




Representation of the Maya

Just prior to its release, Apocalypto was criticized by activists in Guatemalamarker, including Lucio Yaxon, who charged that the trailer depicts Maya as savages. In her review of the film, anthropologist Traci Ardren wrote that Apocalypto was biased because "no mention is made of the achievements in science and art, the profound spirituality and connection to agricultural cycles, or the engineering feats of Maya cities". Apocalypto also sparked a strong condemnation from art professor Julia Guernsey, who said, "I think it's despicable. It's offensive to Maya people. It's offensive to those of us who try to teach cultural sensitivity and alternative world views that might not match our own 21st-century Western ones but are nonetheless valid."

However, many Mayas were not offended by the film. Sara Zapata Mijares, president and founder of Federación de Clubes Yucatecos-USA, a group of Yucatec Mayas in the United Statesmarker, called it "a great picture", although she commented that the film "should have had a little bit more of the culture. It could have shown a little more why these buildings [pyramids] were built."

Furthermore, some writers felt that Gibson's film was more truthful about the Maya than other representations. One Mexican reporter, Juan E. Pardinas, wrote that "this historical interpretation bears some resemblances with reality […]. Mel Gibson's characters are more similar to the Mayas of the Bonampakmarker's murals than the ones that appear in the Mexican school textbooks." "The first researchers tried to make a distinction between the 'peaceful' Maya and the 'brutal' cultures of central Mexico", David Stuart wrote in a 2003 article. "They even tried to say human sacrifice was rare among the Maya." But in carvings and mural paintings, Stuart said: "we have now found more and greater similarities between the Aztecs and Mayas – including a Maya ceremony in which a grotesquely costumed priest is shown pulling the entrails from a bound and apparently living sacrificial victim."

Historical consultant Richard D. Hansen states that the impact the film will have on Maya archaeology will be beneficial:"It is a wonderful opportunity to focus world attention on the ancient Maya and to realize the role they played in world history."

Human sacrifice

Apocalypto has been criticized for portraying a type of human sacrifice which was more typical of the Aztecs than of the Maya. Archaeologist Lisa Lucero said, "the classic Maya really didn't go in for mass sacrifice. That was the Aztecs." Anthropology professor Karl Taube argued that, "We know the Aztecs did that level of killing. Their accounts speak of 20,000." According to the film's technical advisor, the film was meant to describe the post-classic period of the Maya when fiercer influences like the Toltecs and Aztecs arrived. According to Hansen, "We know warfare was going on. The Postclassic center of Tulummarker is a walled city; these sites had to be in defensive positions. There was tremendous Aztec influence by this time. The Aztecs were clearly ruthless in their conquest and pursuit of sacrificial victims, a practice that spilled over into some of the Maya areas." Anthropology professor Stephen Houston made the criticism that sacrifice victims were more likely to be royalty and elites rather than common forest dwellers, as shown in Apocalypto. In contrast, Associate Professor William R. Fowler states that for major favors, worshippers "offered the gods human sacrifice, usually children, slaves, or prisoners of war." Anthropology professor Karl Taube criticized the film's apparent depiction of widespread slavery, saying, "We have no evidence of large numbers of slaves." Another disputed scene, when Jaguar Paw and the rest of captives are used as target practice, was acknowledged by the filmmakers to be invented as a plot device for igniting the chase sequence. Some anthropologists objected to the presence of a huge pit filled with rotting corpses near their fields of the Maya. Richard D. Hansen acknowledges that this is "conjecture", saying that "all [Gibson was] trying to do there is express the horror of it."

Arrival of the Spaniards

According to the DVD commentary track by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia, the ending of the film was meant to depict the first contact between the Spaniards and Mayas that took place in 1502 during the fourth voyage of Christopher Columbus.

Anthropologist Traci Ardren criticized the presence of the Spanish expedition in the last five minutes of the story, claiming that "the Spaniards arrived 300 years after the last Maya city was abandoned." However, despite the end of construction at many famous postclassic centers, such as Chichen Itzamarker and Uxmalmarker, they had not been abandoned at the time of the Spanish arrival, and there were still many comparatively smaller Maya cities such as Mayapanmarker, Tiho, Cobamarker, Chetumalmarker, Nito, and Tayasalmarker, also known as Petzen Itza, survived until 1697 before being conquered by the Spaniards.

The thematic meaning of the arrival of the Europeans is a subject of disagreement. Traci Ardren wrote that the Spanish arrivals were Christian missionaries and that the film had a "blatantly colonial message that the Mayas needed saving because they were "rotten at the core". According to Ardren, the Gibson film "replays, in glorious big-budget technicolor, an offensive and racist notion that Maya people were brutal to one another long before the arrival of Europeans and thus they deserved, in fact they needed, rescue. This same idea was used for 500 years to justify the subjugation of Maya people". Others disagreed with Ardren's view that the Spaniards were portrayed as saviors of the Mayas, citing an equivocal or ominous depiction instead, since he had just ended his ordeal running from the Maya and was now confronted with a new problem which most viewers would know to have a far more profound effect on the region than the Mayans could ever exert. They point out that the hero Jaguar Paw chose to avoid the new arrivals at the close of the film rather than joining them and that the Oracle Girl had prophesied about the coming of those who would "Scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world."

Soundtrack album

The soundtrack to Apocalypto was composed by James Horner in his third collaboration with director Mel Gibson. The soundtrack lacks a traditional orchestral score and instead features a large array of exotic instruments and vocals by Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

See also


  1. Michael D. Coe, The Maya 7th ed, Thames & Hudson, 2005, pg 161.
  2. Michael D. Coe "The MAYA" 7th ed, pg 162-63
  3. Ebert & Roeper air date December 10, 2006
  4. Apocalypto review by Michael Medved (Microsoft Word document)
  5. "Apocalypto" at Retrieved January 11, 2008.
  6. Interview with Quentin Tarantino, FILMINK Magazine, August 2007.

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