Apocalypto: Is the 2006 Movie Based on True Historical Events?

Directed by Mel Gibson, ‘Apocalypto’ is a period action-adventure film that revolves around Jaguar Paw, a tribesman captured by a few people from the Mayan tribe. After Jaguar loses his home and people, he fights to survive and return to his pregnant wife. The 2006 film unfolds in the 16th century Mexico just before the Spaniards reached the shores of South America.

The story explores the Mayan civilization, its cultures, rituals, and other elemental beliefs. In addition, the characters and the overall narrative carry overtones of survival, freedom, struggles against oppression, and more. Various facets pique the audience’s interest and make them wonder how much of the tale comes from real-life history. Well, allow us to appease your curiosity.

Apocalypto: Historical Fiction or Pure Fantasy?

‘Apocalypto’ is not a true story but depicts a fictionalized version of historical aspects revolving around the Mayan civilization. The movie is driven by a fictional tale co-written by Mel Gibson and Farhad Safinia. While talking about the inspiration behind the movie, Mel Gibson told The Skinny that he’d “been wanting to do a chase movie forever. And that’s how it started, just a chase. I thought, well there’s all kinds of chases, there’s train chases, car chases, horse chases, I thought, a foot chase! That’s a good idea, that’s as minimum and as primal as it gets, it’s just feet, just running.”

The director also explained how the idea was to tell a story with multiple layers and connotations. The writer-director said he wanted to leave it to the audience to draw the meaning or see it as a simple survival film. In an interview with ComingSoon, Gibson explained why he wanted to base the chase story around the time of the Mayan civilization’s decline. He said, “Musing on what might have happened before Europe arrived because we have this conceit that history began when we got here–I thought that was interesting.”

Gibson added, “Most people do it when the boats arrive, and then the fun starts, but I wanted to do it the other way around, and look what was before all that.” One of the significant discussions around the move has been about the depiction of Mayans and their culture. Several experts, researchers, and people who study the subject criticized the story for portraying the Mayan civilization. The general opinion is that the narrative has numerous historical inaccuracies when it comes to the depiction of the Mayans.

For instance, the film comprises scenes wherein the Mayans indulge in mass sacrifice. According to history experts, such practices were closely associated with the Aztecs and the not Mayans. Another intriguing aspect is how the Mayans are shown as brutal, immoral, and ruthless in the movie. Experts believe such imagery is inaccurate because the Mayan civilization was sophisticated and had accomplishments in fields such as architecture, engineering, astronomy, and more. However, none of these achievements are a part of the movie.

In contrast to the critics’ opinions and statements, Mel Gibson contended that the Mayan culture was far more violent than the film’s depiction. In an interview with MTV, the actor-director said, “Absolutely. Some of the stuff they did was unspeakable. You could not put it on film. I really did go light. There are accounts of when the conquistadors first arrived in the Aztec empire and saw something like 20,000 human sacrifices in four days.” Although Gibson agreed that sacrifices were more prevalent in Aztec culture, he claimed that the practice became standard with the Mayans due to certain factors.

He explained, “Human sacrifice wasn’t as prevalent in the Mayan civilization as in the Aztecs. But with conquest and the melding of cultures, it became more commonly practiced further south.” Interestingly, ‘Apocalypto’ was filmed in Mexico and comprises several non-actors who play crucial roles in the movie. It features Native American and indigenous Mexican actors essaying various roles, adding authenticity to the story. Furthermore, the characters speak the Indigenous Yucatec Mayan language, a modern perception of the language.

Despite such positive facets, the film received flak for reportedly portraying the Mayan civilization inadequately. For instance, several elements in the movie symbolize the socio-political state of the US in 2006. In the beginning, we see a quote from William Durant that says, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” The movie uses it to indicate the nature of Mayan civilization and leverages it to comment on how American civilization is moving toward its decline.

Critics and historians do not appreciate how the film attributes Mayans’ downfall to their vicious nature. Overall, when we try to determine whether ‘Apocalypto’ is a true story, it is safe to say that the film is a historical fiction with several differences between the cinematic portrayal of the Mayan civilization and the real-life counterparts. The movie makes up for an incredible visual and storytelling spectacle but also seems to depict a different picture of the Mayans than the factually accurate one.

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