Mel Gibson already has his critics and detractors,
but with his new movie, he's angering historians, too.
'Apocalypto' Now for Mel, Maya and Historians
By Dan Vergano
(June 29) -- Call it The Passion of the Maya: Mel Gibson is quietly filming a movie in a Mexican jungle about the collapsed civilization.
Given Gibson's cinematic history, experts on the ancient Maya are looking forward to his upcoming epic, Apocalypto, with a mixture of curiosity and dread. They're pleased that Hollywood will feature a period of world history still little understood but worry that once again a movie may sacrifice historical accuracy for the sake of a good story.
"A lot depends on how well they depict the Maya. It may serve as a really good springboard into a lecture," says archaeologist Lisa Lucero of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. "Or it may be something we have to nip in the bud in that first lecture."
Gibson wasn't available for comment, and the public relations firm for his Icon Productions declined to offer any details on the film's plot.
But according to the film's website, Apocalypto promises "a heart-stopping mythic action-adventure set against the turbulent end-times of the once-great Mayan civilization." The story centers on a kidnapped hero's bid to escape a mass sacrifice at one Maya center. According to another description of the plot in Time magazine's March preview, a ruler orders the mass sacrifice of hapless captives to appease the gods and avert a drought.
The only problem, and big cause for worry among archaeologists, is "the classic Maya really didn't go in for mass sacrifice," Lucero says. "That was the Aztecs." Other concerns: the modern-day Mayan Yucatec language spoken in the film is not the language of the ancient Maya, and the film's Mexican shooting locale is not the classic Maya homeland, says Penn State archaeologist David Webster.
Gibson's last production, The Passion of the Christ, collected complaints, and compliments, from religious scholars, even as it made $370 million in North America. Most of the controversy centered on charges of anti-Semitism, but some, such as DePaul University's John Dominic Crossan, also complained about Jesus speaking Latin and details of the Crucifixion, among other questions.
Gibson's Icon Productions declined to comment on archaeologists' concerns through its Los Angeles public relations firm, Rogers & Cowan. In an interview in March with Time, Gibson said, "After what I experienced with The Passion, I frankly don't give a flying (expletive) about much of what those critics think." He told Time he partly views the movie as a political allegory for leadership in our own era.
Gibson has consulted on the film with archaeologist Richard Hansen, head of the Mirador Basin Project in northern Guatemala, a forest reserve home to a number of Maya archaeological sites. Hansen also declined to comment, other than to say that project findings played a role in the film.
The classic Maya were one of the most developed cultures of Central America before the arrival of Columbus. The Maya practiced slash-and-burn and terrace farming, relying on corn as a staple, and repairing in the dry season to ceremonial centers holding monumental pyramids, plazas and temples.
In 1989, discoveries by Hansen and colleagues established that Maya rulers had centralized their roles far earlier than once supposed, building several massive centers with the help of commoners as early as 600 B.C. The classic Maya culture's history lasted for more than 1,000 years, ending around A.D. 850 with the collapse of the use of ceremonial centers in what are now parts of Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
Scholars still disagree over the extent to which war, drought or general political failure led to the collapse.
By focusing on the role of mass sacrifice, Apocalypto seems poised to insert its own vision into this area of scholarly disagreement, says Lucero, who this year published Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers. The lack of signs of warfare at the sites she has studied, and many others, points more toward a political collapse of the classic Maya, she concludes. "People voted with their feet," she says, moving back into the jungle or northward in a time of drought and political upheaval, when rulers lacking water couldn't compel farmers to visit their centers.
Focusing only on certain aspects of the Maya collapse such as violence or ecological disasters may create the incorrect impression that it was a simple process or that it was caused by a single factor, says archaeologist Tomas Barrientos of Guatemala's Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, by e-mail. Other scholars are just looking forward to seeing how the movie turns out. The film is scheduled for release on Dec. 8. Heavy rains in Mexico had delayed filming this year.
"Actually I'm quite looking forward to seeing it. I think films like this are really funny, and they vastly help me with my teaching, " Webster says. For example, he says, using locations and temples in non-Maya areas of Mexico is "a little like filming the siege of Troy using Roman backdrops."
But after all, Apocalypto is just a movie. And students like hearing how movies get it wrong, Webster says, and enjoy learning the real story. So, "cheers to Mel for being such a juicy target."
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