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The Revelations of Mel

From: The American Indian Quarterly
Volume 31, Number 3, Summer 2007
pp. 491-503 | 10.1353/aiq.2007.0036

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By coincidence, in a conversation earlier this year I was arguing that the 1970s descendants of John Wayne's swagger and renegade manner in The Searchers were either Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson, but that in the 1980s, instead of someone like Harrison Ford (whose characters, especially Indiana Jones, often register signs of humility) and amongst other candidates like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone, it might have been Mel Gibson. Certainly the title character in the Mad Max films displayed a similar bravado and confidence mixed with a stoic, deadpan humor that bears a resemblance to Ethan Edwards's snipe of "That'll be the day!" But it was actually the Lethal Weapon series that first came to mind. Gibson's Martin Riggs is the more accurate embodiment of a contemporary cowboy: like Wayne's outlaw who was a soldier (in the Confederate army, of course) and who uses his knowledge of Comanche ways to trail them, Riggs is the loose cannon—a suicidal near-criminal who's actually a cop and who knows the criminals' game better than they do. The confidence of Wayne, Eastwood, and Bronson is intact, but the stoic sense of control is replaced by a new element of, for lack of a better term, lunacy. The image that has stuck with me comes from a scene in the first film of the Lethal series when, confronting a pair of crooks, Gibson's Riggs plays "Three Stooges" with himself to throw them off guard, thus allowing him to poke them in the eyes and ultimately subdue them. Gibson's wild-eyed look in this scene is one that spawned three sequels and launched a chapter in his career.

While watching Gibson's new film, Apocalypto, it was difficult to keep that image, coupled with Gibson's recent public notoriety, out of my mind. That wild-eyed look Gibson displays as Riggs is actually one he reveals quite often in real life, as anyone who has seen a television interview with him can attest, and it's one that he exhibits in a photo of himself with a few men from his Apocalypto cast that was included in a "teaser" trailer released some months ago. Combined with this maniacal grin, it is also impossible not to see the film in the context of many of his public statements: both about the film, its theme of self-destructing civilizations, and connections to the Bush administration and the war in Iraq, and his drunken anti-Semitic diatribe that he unleashed while being arrested for driving while intoxicated in July of 2006.

Nevertheless, and despite all of this notoriety and what it may have led me to expect, Apocalypto is remarkable primarily because it is so unremarkable. This is not to say that I did not jump as quickly as my fellow audience members when there was a good scare, or cringe and grip my armrest when the hero made a narrow escape, but as you may have gathered from these comments alone, it is not exactly a film none of us has ever seen before. It's just that this time it stars people we may have never seen before. Of course, the cast and the language in the film are truly its only remarkable components: it contains entirely Native (North and Central) American actors and is spoken entirely in Yukatec Maya. This feature is truly worth comment, as I can't think of another film meant as a mainstream Hollywood release (this side of Smoke Signals) that could make such a claim. If only it didn't play like an Indian Braveheart, or feel like Die Hard with a Mayan Vengeance, Mayan Gladiator, or as USA Today reviewer Claudia Puig puts it, "Mesoamerican Rambo." As reviewer for the New York Times A. O. Scott writes, despite the foreign sound of the dialogue, "the film's real language is Hollywood's, and Mr. Gibson's, native tongue." And despite the film's claims of authenticity in regard to language and depiction of Mayan civilization, I agree with Scott when he says that Apocalypto is "less interested in historical or cultural authenticity than in imposing an accessible scheme on...



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