Mel Gibson‘s Apocalypto should be taught in comparative mythology classes–there are archetypes everywhere. There’s the hero figure; the maternal wife figure; the wise elder figure; a descent into hell; and a rescue from without, among others. According to Gibson himself, he set out to reinvigorate the action-adventure genre. What he ended up with, however, was a brilliant mythic narrative.
This is not to say that the film is not an action-adventure film, for in fact it is an exceptional action-adventure film, including one of the best chases I can remember. It triumphs over even the most exciting car chases because it maintains a towering level of suspense and yet is bare-bones: a man is running from other men in the middle of a steamy jungle rife with poisonous snakes, deadly jaguars, and roaring waterfalls. How does it come to this point? Through a familiar–though far from cliched–story.
A young warrior named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) lives with his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and little boy, Turtles Run (Carlos Emilio Baez), along with his father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), and a variety of others in a peaceful Mayan village somewhere in the jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula. Their homes are raided one morning by a band of Holcane warriors led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trajillo). Jaguar Paw manages to sneak his wife and son to a nearby chasm, which he lowers them into before returning to the village to help fight off the attack. He is eventually subdued by Zero Wolf and made to watch as his father’s neck is slit by a particularly nasty Holcane warrior named Middle Eye (Gerardo Teracena). Before dying, Flint Sky offers Jaguar Paw words of wisdom that see him through to the end of the film: “My son…don’t be afraid.”
The rest of the narrative leading up the chase involves Jaguar Paw and the remaining villagers (minus Seven and Turtles Run, who are safe though abandoned in the chasm) being taken to a large Mayan city where some are to be sold into slavery while others are to be sacrificed on an altar atop a Mayan pyramid. En route to the city, the travelers encounter yet another mythic archetype: an oracle. In this case, the oracle is a little girl who is apparently sick with some kind of disease. She says to the Holcane warriors, in an appropriately mystical fashion:
You fear me? So you should. All you who are vile. Would you like to know how you will die? The sacred time is near. Beware the blackness of day. Beware the man who brings the jaguar. Behold him reborn from mud and earth. For the one he takes you to will cancel the sky, and scratch out the earth. Scratch you out. And end your world. He’s with us now. Day will be like night. And the man jaguar will lead you to your end.
We, of course, know exactly who “the man who brings the jaguar” is.
Not surprisingly, Jaguar Paw is chosen to be sacrificed atop the pyramid, and so is covered with blue paint (a nice incidental visual connection to the blue-faced rebels in Gibson’s Braveheart). However, our hero is archetpyically saved by a solar eclipse, which the priest sees as a good sign from the god Kukulkan. The surviving warriors who were to be sacrificed are led to an amphitheater where they are released in pairs and shot at by the Holcane warriors with arrows, javelins, and stones for sport. One thing leads to another, and Jaguar Paw eventually kills the “finisher” (the warrior in charge of finishing off the victims who are hit by the projectiles) who happens to be Cut Rock (Ricardo Diaz Mendoza), Zero Wolf’s son. Thus ensues the chase.
I mentioned earlier that Flint Sky’s dying words were, “My son…don’t be afraid.” Fear is a motif that runs fluidly throughout this narrative. We see it in the beginning of the film on the faces of runaway refugees who are ostensibly fleeing from the Holcane warriors; we see it on the faces of the warriors about to be sacrificed to Kukulkan; we see it in the massive crowd of people gathered before the mighty temple, people who are all fearful of the gods due to a devastating plague that has destroyed their crops and an inexplicable sickness that is killing off their population. We do not see it on Jaguar Paw’s face, not even when he is about to be sacrificed; we don’t see it on his face while he’s defending the village from the raiders; we don’t see it on his face during the arduous and painful trek to the city; in fact, the only time we do see Jaguar Paw afraid is when his family or close friends are in danger. Not once do we see him afraid for his own life. Why? Because he is a good epic hero who follows the words of wisdom from the wise man figure (in this case, his father).
At the start of the chase, Jaguar Paw tumbles into an open pit of rotting bodies, which would serve no clear purpose unless we were looking at the narrative archetypically; surrounded by death, the hero has unmistakably taken a symbolic tumble into hell. Joseph Campbell refers to situations like this as “the belly of the whale,” in which the hero is thrust from the known world, passing a “magical threshold” and “would appear to have died” . While the pit of corpses may not necessarily be described as “magical,” it can nevertheless be described as separate from the known world that one expects to see, and in any case, with the surviving raiders close behind him, it does appear that Jaguar Paw is about to die. But he doesn’t, as we really know he won’t, and he disappears into the jungle, where he encounters even more archetypes.
In a panicked attempt to hide from the pursuing Holcane warriors, Jaguar Paw climbs into a tree which is inhabited by–what else?–a black jaguar. The next thing we know, he is being chased by both the Holcane warriors and the jaguar. Fortunately for Jaguar Paw, theis jaguar attacks and kills one of the Holcane warriors. But wait–why does this sound strangely familiar? Ah yes, as the diseased Oracle Girl prophesied: “Beware the man who brings the jaguar.” Prophesies–standard in mythic narratives like Apocalypto–are coming true. It isn’t too long before this scene that “day [is] like night” during the solar eclipse.
The chase eventually leads Jaguar Paw and the Holcane warriors to a river that is tumbling down via a waterfall. In mythic narratives from the Greek myths of heroes crossing the River Styx to James Joyce‘s multilingual (and multi-headache inducing) Finnegans Wake, rivers are archetypal thresholds between two different “worlds,” generally between an old life and a new one. In this case, we see Jaguar Paw transition from the “old life” as the hunted to the “new life” as the hunter. As he proudly proclaims to Zero Wolf and the other Holcane hunters after fearlessly jumping off the waterfall, the jungle on the other side of the river is his jungle. He’s known it since childhood, so even though the hunters are still chasing him, he is now in an environment in which he can hunt them. Certainly, as he soon after emerges from a nearby pit of mud looking like what Anthony Lane calls, “…the first man on earth, hatching out of a myth,” Jaguar Paw is without a doubt an archetypal visage of a primeval hunter, camouflaged with mud and ready to sneak up on his prey. And don’t forget the Oracle Girl’s prophecy: “Behold him reborn from mud and earth.” Reborn, indeed.
At one point during the chase, Zero Wolf says that Jaguar Paw runs because he’s afraid, but we know differently. His top priority, of course, is returning to his hidden wife and son, who embark on their own mini-heroes’ journey of sorts within the confines of the chasm while Jaguar Paw undergoes his road of trials. Ensuring their safety is his ultimate goal and because we know this, the chase is exasperatingly effective. Were he simply running for his life, it would be infinitely more difficult to engage with him or hope for his survival. But because we know he’s racing to return to Seven and Turtles Run, we are so engaged with his flight that we feel his sweat dripping down our backs and feel our pulses beating as hard as his. Archetypically speaking, Seven and Turtles Run are the maternal wife and son figures common to mythic narratives; they are the progeny of other mother and son figures like Penelope and Telemachus from the Odyssey and the Madonna and Child from Christian symbology. This makes Jaguar Paw’s race home all the more urgent, which is a good thing since we aren’t given much of a chance to engage with them otherwise thanks to sparse screen time and dialogue. But because they are recognizable archetypes–symbols that speak to some part of our unconscious selves–we dearly fear for them and thus feel the almost unbearable suspense caused by the chase.
At the close of the chase, Jaguar Paw and the two surviving Holcane hunters wind up on a beach. Our hero collapses to his knees on the sand, and though their quarry is unmoving and right in front of them, the hunters do not acknowledge him but instead follow his gaze out in the sea. Through a brilliant display of camera work, the angle moves without cutting from its depiction of the three characters staring out at the sea to a point of view shot over Jaguar Paw’s shoulder, where we see what is apparently Christopher Columbus and his crew as they come to the Yucatan shore during Columbus’ fourth voyage. This archetypal sequence is unquestionably what Joseph Campbell calls “the rescue from without,” a segment common in mythic narratives where the hero is allowed to return to his everyday life–in this case, his life with his wife and son–with some outside help. From the Mayan point of view, you can’t get more outside than Christopher Columbus. The two remaining Holcane hunters bypass Jaguar Paw, which allows him to sneak back to the chasm, where he finds his wife and son–and the baby that Seven has just delivered. Now that’s a story to recount to your child later on in life: “What happened on the day you were born? Ah yes, I was running from a band of vengeful Holcane hunters and killed most of them but was able to sneak away when some white guys landed on shore.”
With its masterful use of a variety of traditional archetypes throughout its gripping mythic narrative, Apocalypto realizes Gibson’s wish to reinvigorate the action-adventure genre. We care about the protagonist and his family because they symbolically represent parts of ourselves and the people we love, despite the fact that they may talk and look like Mayans. If action-adventure films are headed in this direction and away from the Fast and Furious types, I am going to be one happy camper.