I first saw Apocalypto in high school and enjoyed my first viewing immensely. I had little to go off when it came to assessing the accuracy of the movie but I found the actions sequences very entertaining and enjoyed the fast-paced, straightforward narrative. Since then, I have learned a great deal more about Mesoamerican history and I understand much better the problematic elements of the movie. The movie suggests the post-Classic Mayans carried out human sacrifice on a scale completely incongruous with the academic consensus and that people who lived in the hinterland had yet to transition to an agricultural lifestyle but did have to worry about getting raided by distant city-states. In reality, the Mayan people had been practicing agriculture for centuries by this point and warfare was carried out by major polities against other polities, not tiny villages buried deep in the jungle. For that matter, the idea that villagers would practice a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and maintain no connection to any sort of major metropolis contradicts a great deal of what we know about the Yucatan Peninsula in the early 1500s. As someone who takes a great interest in history, especially history related to the European colonization of the Americas, these inaccuracies are troubling to say the least.
Nonetheless, when it comes to assessing the quality of the movie, it is important to note that Apocalypto is a rather unique movie. After all, the box office is not exactly overwhelmed with movies set in pre-colonial North America, let alone movies filmed entirely in maya t’aan. I don’t think this should make audiences necessarily forgiving of the many inaccuracies included in the film but I think it does put them in context. At the end of the day, movie studios are profit-seeking organizations and the movie was intended for a general audience, not academics that specialize in Post-Classic Mayan history. To be fair, the many inaccuracies of Apocalypto could be attributable to shoddy scholarship but I think it stands to reason that some can be attributed to studio executives believing it would be alright to compromise the historicity of the movie for the sake of narrative cohesion.
I think it is also important to note that the movie does not claim to be based on a true story. This simple proclamation can generate understandable interest from audiences and helped power the financial success of movies like 12 Years a Slave and Apollo 13. If promotional material for the movie had featured language like this, the movie’s casual approach to history would be far more troubling in my opinion. Putting aside matters of historical accuracy, Apocalypto has many standout scenes. The scene where the village gathers to hear the story about the hole in Man has to be one of the better parables put to film and contains some incredibly rich symbolism. Audiences more interested in action than lengthy parables will also find plenty to enjoy in Apocalypto. The second half of the movie functions largely as an extended chase sequence but, owing to careful build-up beforehand and thoughtful pacing, never feels tiring. Some of the scenes in the movie are disturbingly bloody but even movie-viewers who tend to avoid the macabre will be able to appreciate the stunning photography in the movie.
Ultimately, I have mixed feelings about Apocalypto. The movie took an approach to history too casual for my tastes but I appreciate that the movie explores a time and place largely ignored in film. Additionally, I appreciate that the movie worked well on a narrative level and that it gave performers from traditionally under-represented groups the chance to showcase their talents for a wide audience. I would not suggest the movie to anyone looking for an accurate depiction of life in pre-Hispanic Mexico but I think movie-viewers who enjoy straightforward stories and long chase sequences can find a lot to enjoy in Apocalypto.