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Post-Apocalypto vision

Touchstone Pictures
Warriors advance through the jungle in Mel Gibson's Maya movie "Apocalypto."

There’s plenty to argue about in Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" – and we’re not just talking about the actor/director’s bad behavior and controversial views. Anthropologists and modern-day Mayans are arguing about how much truth there is in Gibson’s gripping, violent tale of an ancient civilization on the brink.

The setting for Gibson's movie of a Mayan on the run is late Postclassic Maya society - or to be more precise, a branch of that society on the Yucatan Peninsula around the year 1510, just before the Spanish conquest began. It's a jungle adventure story that depicts brutal raids and human sacrifices - a gorefest that University of Miami anthropologist Traci Ardren called "sad and ultimately pornographic."

It's not that the film is a stinker: Even its harshest critics say it's well-done ... as a hyperviolent, totally fictional action movie. And they acknowledge that human sacrifice was part of the deal for the ancient Maya. But they're worried that Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" will give audiences a warped view of a culture that has suffered much over the past few hundred years.

"That movie gives you as much an idea of Maya civilization as ... I don't know, think of a really violent movie, an Oliver Stone movie, and that's supposed to give you an idea of the United States," said Elin Danien, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology who wrote a critical review of the film. "Actually, it gives you less of an idea. He has no context, no explanation, no understanding. He simply creates violent scenes."

In a way, "Apocalypto" serves as a mirror for those familiar with Maya history, and reflects the debate over whether indigenous peoples were noble savages or just plain savages.

"The Maya created a civilization that survived for well over 1,000 years in an environment that was not the most hospitable," Danien told me. "Instead of choosing to create a movie that was nothing but violence, it would have been very interesting to have a movie that showed the drama and courage of a people who created a mathematical system, who created a complex religious pantheon, who created a superb writing system - all of this in what Western civiliization would consider an environment that couldn't possibly allow this."

That might make for a fine National Geographic documentary - for example, "Dawn of the Maya." But would that bring 'em in at the multiplex? On the other side of the debate is Richard Hansen, an anthropologist at Idaho State University who served as a consultant for "Apocalypto."

Hansen doesn't think the violence is that far over the top. "I think it's far less than 'Lord of the Rings,'" he told me half-jokingly, "and it's based on a great deal of reality."

He said the chronicles of Postclassic Maya society support the movie's depiction of sacrificial rites: "The decapitation is there, the skull racks are there, the bodies rolling down the steps are there," he said.

In fact, there are even grislier parts - such as the fact that the Maya flayed the skins of their sacrificial victims. "The priest would wear the skin, for crying out loud," Hansen said. "We toned it way down."

Of course, an anthropologist wouldn't have made the same movie that Gibson did. "Some of this was done to make a statement, and Mel had the artistic license to do so," Hansen said.

Gibson's grand theme is laid out at the movie's very beginning, with a quotation from philosopher Will Durant that "a great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within." This echoes the view that the Maya were done in principally by their overconsumption of shrinking resources and the resulting fragmentation of their society - with an extra push from climatic shifts and, of course, the invading Spaniards.

Hansen said the statement was aimed at American society as well as the turmoil in Iraq: A civilization grows when it unites and makes common cause, and breaks into pieces when it turns inward and emphasizes its divisions - for example, black vs. white, or Sunni vs. Shiite vs. Kurd.

"When we fragment into linguistic or political or ethnic groups, we are doing nothing but fragmenting our society," Hansen said, "and fragmentation is the death knell, because it can lead to social and economic disintegration."

Danien totally disagrees with the view, seemingly implied by the movie's ending, that the Maya did themselves in and that the Spanish colonizers brought enlightenment. On that point, Gibson made a mistake of historic proportions, she said.

"His view that the Maya were corrupt from within and were saved by the Spaniards is nonsense," she said. "The Spaniards destroyed everything they encountered. Yes, it's true that the cities of the Peten, of what we call the Classic Maya period, were abandoned in the 10th century. But there were cities in the Yucatan, there were cities on the Pacific coast of Guatemala that were going full blast when the Spaniards arrived."

Hansen told me that Gibson was "well aware of what a disaster" the Spanish invasion of the 1500s was for Maya culture. "What he's saying is that the new beginning isn't necessarily favorable here," he said.

Within a century, the Maya were ravaged by the diseases brought over by the Europeans, and enslaved by the conquistadors. Hansen hinted that Gibson may well be planning to delve into that side of the story if "Apocalypto" does well at the box office.

"It's designed to have a sequel if it's successful," Hansen said.

But that verdict will have to wait. For now, Hansen is most concerned about what the modern-day descendants of the ancient Maya think of the movie - and the verdict so far is mixedat best.

"I'm a little apprehensive about this, to be honest about it," said Hansen, who is continuing to conduct research on ancient Maya civilization in Guatemala. "We don't really like all of our closets examined."

On the other hand, he said, "If we can't look at the reality of the history, then what good is the history?"

Here are additional links about the Maya and the "Apocalypto" controversy: