It might have been Horizon. Or indeed anything that looked back at civilisations past and promised to reveal something new about a people we thought we knew much about. In this case, it was the Mayan civilisation, who, like many I would imagine, I had long thought of as being a beacon of art, language, mathematics and social responsibility who were left in ruin by the invading Spanish conquistadors. But no doubt prompted by findings by historians, who discovered a bloodlust amongst the Mayans, the ancient American civilisation were found to practice human sacrifice, the slaughter of children and sports that ended with the killing of the losing team. The result, as one walked away from it, was that a lot of crazy shit went on
Which is, I admit, a rather odd way of describing the events of thousands of years ago but I'd wager that said crazy shit was never far from Mel Gibson during the making of Apocalypto. Remember the bizarre folk who occasionally appeared in The Passion Of The Christ, not least the bald midget in the arms of the devil? They're back in three or four times their number in Apocalypto with all manner of grotesques popping up when you least expect them to. There is much lopping off of heads, predictions of doom by a sick young girl discovered near the body of her mother, the eating of still-warm testicles and hearts being ripped out of bodies. Slaves are sold in a market, the various peoples of a city are revealed and young Mayan warriors soak their skin in warm blood. Topping it all is a plodding about in the society built by the Mayans in which members of the social strata make brief appearances
None of which would be a problem if this were a drama set against a background of the last days of the Mayan people. Then again, with Mel Gibson and co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia describing Apocalypto as a distillation of various chase films, all of these things do seem more than a little out of place. Actually, so long as Apocalypto is a chase film, it's really not at all bad, with young warrior Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) being taken along with other men and women from his village to a place unknown to them, pulled and pushed through the jungle by men led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). They lose some of their number along the way and are forced to leave the children of the village behind to fend for themselves and are dragged to a Mayan city where they watch in horror as prisoners, as they are, are marched to the top of a pyramid to be sacrificed to the god of the sun. But one escapes and as he runs back home to his village, Zero Wolf pursues him doggedly. Amidst the dangers he faces, he might well have surrendered himself but his son and pregnant wife are at the bottom of a well and the rain is starting to fall.
This would have been a fine film had it lasted eighty minutes or thereabouts. Stripped down as much as it could have been and as Gibson and Safinia kind of promised, Apocalypto would have had touches of Southern Comfort, First Blood or Cannibal Holocaust. On the contrary, they cannot seem to help themselves when faced with the plethora of historical marvels at their disposal. With CG doing for Gibson what Cecil B deMille would have had his builders and joiners do in the past, Gibson creates, virtually or otherwise, vast temples, marketplaces and living quarters. He has thousands of extras milling about the streets and even, in one of the film's pivotal moments, draws the shadow of a solar eclipse over the city in a moment that's less drama than out of a big box marked deus ex machina. Or from the pages of Tintin's Prisoners Of The Sun.
But there must come a time when a writer or director must draw a line under what serves the plot and what does not. There's more penis gags in the first half hour than in thirtysomething Carry On films, a nagging mother-in-law and a whole lot of jokes directed at Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), a decent-but-a-bit-tubby warrior who's failing to live up to the bit of the marriage contract that demands he sire a child or two. As Zero Wolf and his captives arrive at the Mayan village, such things tend to escalate. Some Mayan women wearing daft hats? All manner of grotesques sat atop a pyramid? A misguided effort at adding drama to the film by the felling of a tree? A limestone quarry? There is nothing as surprising in Apocalypto as its spending time in a limestone quarry. Perhaps Gibson felt that his film was lacking in historical substance. Perhaps he felt that the Mayan construction industry was underrepresented on the screen. It might have been a backhander from the American Union of Limestone Miners that swayed his thinking or a thinking that the dark skin of the cast needed to be offset by the chalk-white skin of those who mined limestone. However, what I don't think Apocalypto needed was any lingering in a quarry. After all, Excalibur gets by perfectly well without John Boorman ever having felt the need to let us see Arthurian blacksmiths at work. And is all the better a film because of it.
When Apocalypto finally gets to its chase, it becomes as entertaining and as thrilling as it's ever likely to get. Jaguar Paw, escaping from the Mayan city, returns home and, with a confidence borne of his instinct for survival and his knowledge of the jungle around his home - traps he'd laid, routes through the jungle and the availability of natural poisons - he begins to turn on those pursuing him. As exciting as this is, it's still something of a disappointment. We know so very little about those chasing Jaguar Paw that these forty-five minutes or so aren't much more than a sequence of highly enjoyable and sometimes grisly murders. Indeed, much like a cheap slasher, there's a tendency to fast forward through all of the running about - one bit of greenery soon looks like every other bit of jungle in the film - in favour of seeing a man's head crushed by a jaguar, of someone being poisoned or of Jaguar Paw throwing a hive of very angry bees at his enemies.
Yet questions remain. The village in which Jaguar Paw lives, given his quick return to it during his escape, is less than a day's walk from the Mayan city yet the people of one appear to have no knowledge of the other. Similarly, when Jaguar Paw and his father see a group of very frightened villagers begging them to be allowed to cross through their land, not once does it cross their mind to ask what it is that's terrified them so. "Well, there's these guys from the city and they'll tear your heart out...no, really!" Also, why doesn't Jaguar Paw then go in search of the children that were left behind on his being taken captive. And why, contrary to everything that you see on the screen, always imply that it's going to end with an Occurance At Owl Creek Bridge snap of the rope. Or, in this case, a cutting out of the heart.
There are good moments in the film, not least a lovely ten minutes beside a roaring fire early on in the film when Gibson and Safinia's showing of the Mayan culture looks to be paying dividends. The spectacle of the city is impressive and though it's not quite as glorious as de Mille might have managed in his day, it will be familiar to those who thought The Passion Of The Christ had more than a passing thought of what makes an epic. But at more than two hours, this is far too long for what a chase movie with delusions of grandeur. John Boorman's Deliverance gives us characters, thrills, danger, horror, guilt and a much clearer sense of location than Gibson manages with an extra half-hour at his disposal. It's fair to say two things about this - one is that Boorman is a better director than Gibson, which should be clear to anyone who's seen any one film from either director but also that Boorman wastes not a moment in his films whereas Gibson with his slave trading, red-hot-chilied balls and limestone quarry can't help but faff about. So much so that one finds oneself wishing for the arrival of Cortez simply to bring the film to an end.
Gibson filmed Apocalypto using the Panavision Genesis digital camera, with it looking fairly good throughout. There are moments, not least when Gibson tracks Jaguar Paw through the jungle that the image blurs and the encoding of the DVD struggles with the picture but for every moment like that, there's one of real clarity, particularly when Jaguar Paw stares out to sea and to the arrival of the conquistadors. Assuming that this DVD has come directly from a digital source, there are no faults with the actual condition of the picture but the colours aren't as impressive as is suggested by the stills on the back of the DVD case with this looking a little drab at times. But the encoding of the disc is fine with the only problem being Gibson's choice of shot not always suiting the medium.
Like The Passion Of The Christ, Apocalypto comes with its original language track and a choice of subtitles. There is no English dub, only a choice between DD5.1 and DTS Yucatec Maya. As well as the option of no subtitles - one does wonder given the simplicity of the story if they're actually needed - there are English, English HOH, French and Spanish subtitles but, of these, only English carries over onto the bonus features, Commentary included. The two language tracks are good, particularly the DTS, which doesn't sound as compressed and in opening up the audio a little more, offers a much richer listen. There aren't a good many early highlights in the film but once Jaguar Paw escapes from his captors, the soundtrack sets to work with good use of the rear channels as he picks his pursuers off from all sides.
It's a mark of how scarce the extras are on his DVD that a Deleted Scene lasting all of 39s gets billed. It reminds of the very early days of DVD when - EIV, I'm thinking of you here - included Menus in the list of bonus features. Along with this Deleted Scene, we have Becoming Mayan (25m12s), a fairly decent making-of, and a Commentary from Gibson and Farhad Safinia. The making-of covers everything that you might expect from a run-of-the-mill feature, particularly the design of the costumes, the building of the sets and the casting both of actors and people who'd never appeared on camera before. The behind-the-scenes footage is unusually good, not least that in showing that Gibson's real talent as a director might be his creating a happy and relaxed atmosphere on the set. The Commentary is a good one, largely due to Gibson's ability to tell a good story, recount the most memorable moments in the production and not to forget the details of the film. Safinia doesn't add a great deal but if you have ever seen Gibson being interviewed, you'll know that he can talk for two.
Apocalypto has made me go back and reappraise The Passion Of The Christ, not least because both films have been made in the original dialect of the people they portray, Armenian and Latin in the case of The Passion and Yucatec Maya in this. In The Passion, the slow pace of the language seemed deliberate so in spite of it sounding foreign even to the cast, it did imply that Christ was extolling words of great wisdom. Here, though, we have the same pace attached to a gag about Blunted having to eat warm tapir balls, which is, even to an ardent atheist, not quite the same thing as the sermon on the mount. Though I do wonder if Braveheart, were Gibson making it now, might be filmed in Gaelic. There would be one for supporters to get their tongues around at the next Scotland v England game.
This was a disappointment but, being honest, I thought as much at seeing a running time of two-hours-twenty. Not that I have a problem with long films, more that Apocalypto is not a film that deserves that kind of time onscreen. With a rather patchy set of extras, this isn't an awfully impressive DVD package and though the film looks and sounds good, one can't help but think that they could have done better. Given that Apocalypto lacks the ready audience that waited for The Passion Of The Christ, this may be as good as this film gets.