But this is not at all apparent from the movie. What is apparent is that the movie is an all-out attack on tribal culture, which Hollywood has idealized throughout its history and made a fetish in the era of political correctness.
I’m not sure how conscious this is on Gibson’s part. It’s likely not a position he has carefully thought out. In many ways, this is the work of an angry, unstable, self-destructive artist guided by pure instinct: a Modigliani or Van Gogh painting on a $100 million canvas.
But his movie definitely is telling us that tribal sensibility, which films like “Dances With Wolves” celebrate so nostalgically, actually is primitive and backward; and its resurgence in Africa and the Middle East is causing all the problems in our world.
In the climax of “Apocalypto,” when signs appear that the white man and his Christian civilization are coming, we feel relief. That relief flies in the face of everything the movies have taught us since the ’60s, and no one but Gibson would have dared try to induce it. ~William Arnold
Apocalypto opens to general audiences tomorrow, and I plan to see it then. But this review caught my attention, as it is my impression that this interpretation misunderstands the theme rather badly. It is not, I am guessing, a simple story of savage natives destroying themselves, only to be delivered by the white man–in fact, I am doubtful that the conclusion is meant to be a relief. It is probably intended as judgement, a confirmation of the Durant quote cited at the beginning about the collapse of civilisations, and proof that the mayhem you have been watching for the past two hours has had the consequences of distracting everyone from real dangers by focusing on phantoms and illusions and seeking false solutions through an orgy of violent bloodletting. (What could the movie be referring to, I wonder?) Combating the wrong ills all along, this people has ruined itself and prepared the way for its own downfall. We have been treated to moralising tales of the fall of the civilisations like this for a very long time; both the fall of the Republic and the fall of the Empire have often been expressed in terms of corruption and the decline of virtue that paved the way for autocracy and barbarian invasion respectively. Occasionally, this has been put on film, though in the Roman case the movie version has sometimes been horrendously bad (e.g., The Fall of the Roman Empire with Alec Guinness, Sophia Loren and Michael York), but there is nothing new about the idea. Only the setting and the intensity of the violence, I suspect, are what make it seem so unusual.
I say all this about Apocalypto based only on what I have read about the film and what I have heard from a couple reliable sources who have seen it, but it seems to me that the film is not so much an indictment of tribal society or tribalism as much as it is an indictment of failed ruling classes everywhere that attempt to shore up their crumbling edifices of power with the blood of the people. (Ahem.)
If the film depicts “tribal” life as something other than idyllic and as the subject of some romantic pastoral, that is all to the good, because people have never lived in such societies. If he has drenched the screen in the blood of sacrificial victims, it is to set forth clearly the insanity of the rulers of a collapsing civilisation. (And, yes, we should recognise that it is an exaggeration of historical realities.)
Gibson has almost certainly overdone it with too much violence–this is virtually a given in any of his productions–but if he has gone a bit overboard (again, I still haven’t seen it myself) he has also possibly recaptured a kind of intensity and ease with the violence of life more befitting the ages in which his stories take place. It was an observation in Huizinga’s Autumn of the Middle Ages, if I am not mistaken, that medieval European man was much more prone to strong emotion because of the intense and often straitened circumstances in which he lived and that medieval man was also far more accustomed to and more tolerant of violent spectacle and violence itself. It was routinely a part of life in a graphic way that simply has ceased to be the case for a very long time in most of our part of the world (and we can appreciate the obvious benefits of this while noting that it makes us far more likely to be unsettled and disturbed when we see violent spectacle). If his corrective is excessive, it is only because we have become accustomed for the most part to avoiding that spectacular violence (except in our cartoonish horror flicks) all together.
It is funny that Mr. Arnold should mention Dances With Wolves, since the film that springs to mind in connection with Apocalypto is Zwick’s Last Samurai. Some people, who are very smart and have generally good taste in mlovies, don’t think much of The Last Samurai, so they may find the comparison silly, but my guess (and right now it is still just a guess) is that both represent variations on a theme of either internal decay-civil strife-foreign influence/domination or traditional society resists state-state crushes its opposition-state succumbs to invasion after it has ripped the heart, so to speak, out of the traditional society that it governed. Last Samurai is slightly different, in that it is a last stand of the old guard against modernisers, so there the state is actually strengthened by foreign support and adopting foreign ways but, as the conclusion of the film tells us, the director wants us to view the fallen defenders of the old traditions as the moral victors. There are strong echoes, from what I understand, of a purity vs. corruption theme in both Last Samurai and Apocalypto, where the state embodies corruption and the hero and his family/followers embody the antithesis of everything that the state represents.
Things that recur in all Gibson movies, to varying degrees, are elemental forces of loyalty to family, the desire for revenge, man’s constant recourse to conflict, our lust for power, our resentment against injustice and the permanence of violence in this world. Whether he is showing how these things are ultimately overcome and conquered in The Passion, or whether he is showing how they are possibly turned to good ends (Braveheart), he sees all of these as being closely bound up with suffering, violence and blood. Because of this, he may understand some of the elemental forces that drive men as well as any filmmaker today, and this leads him to show those forces in their raw and exposed form. As Gibson moves farther and farther away from subjects that are familiar or safe for a comfortable, squeamish modern audience, his movies might well become even more intensely bloody.