“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself within.” Will Durant
The full title reflects the paradox of this project. On the one hand, it is a well-researched and finely crafted tale of Maya life in 1502; on the other hand, it is an apocalyptic vanity project infused with Gibson’s machismo obsessions. It opens with a tribal group of men hunting in the forest and playing lewd jokes on one of their members. Returning to their village of thatched shelters, the men and their families are besieged by a raiding party from a nearby Maya city. Many of them are taken captive and marched to the city. One young hunter has hidden his wife and son in a pit and the camera follows his ordeal. The prisoners are painted blue and taken to the top of a pyramid for ritual sacrifice. There are some fine views of the populous ceremonial center with its red towers. Two men are laid on a block and their hearts are extracted from their bodies. The remarkable coincidence of a rapid solar eclipse causes the young man’s life to be spared. The remaining captives are taken to a kind of stadium where they are allowed to run for freedom while their captors throw spears and shoot arrows at them.
Our hero manages to escape into a cornfield even though his side has been pierced. The remainder of the film follows his headlong flight through the jungle with a group of pursuers close on his heels. He is shot again with an arrow but still manages to keep ahead of the seasoned warriors chasing him. He even manages to jump over a huge waterfall and make it through a sucking mud pit. We learn that his name is Jaguar’s Paw when he shouts a challenge to the men behind him. He kills most of them before he stumbles onto the seashore (in Costa Rica?). There he and his two remaining pursuers are stunned to see several European ships lying offshore, and a rowboat or two on their way to the beach. While the others are distracted, Paw runs to his village and manages to rescue his wife and child as the pit is filling with rainwater. She has just given birth in the water. Miraculously healed, he and his family slip off into the forest to start a new life.
The documentary on the DVD accentuates the paradox. There is much attention to the authenticity of the sets, costumes, and make-up; but when Gibson provides commentary there is a feeling of a bunch of guys making an action-adventure film in the jungle. Most of the filming was done in Mexico.
Talking with some people of Mayan heritage in Guatemala in 2010, I learned that there was general admiration for the portrait of ancient Maya life but there were some reservations. One guide told us that the film is set roughly in the time of the Teotihuacano invasion, roughly the 4th century AD, and expressed some contempt for the anachronism of the Spanish ships appearing off the coast at the end of the movie. My notes, however, say that it is set in 1502. This matter will bear some further attention. More recently, I have heard reports of Maya people who felt the film was inaccurate and insulting.