Apocalypto is the ultimate man-movie. Let’s a take some time to mine the treasures of manliness, courage, and strength offered in this brilliant movie.
Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen this movie, watch it before reading this review, then come back and we’ll talk about it.
Apocalypto is about fear and courage. The theme of fear is predominant from the beginning to the end of the movie. There’s a lot to learn about the fear in a man’s heart and how it is overcome.
The main character of Apocalypto is a young man named Jaguar Paw from a small Mayan tribe. The theme of fear is introduced when Jaguar Paw, his father, Flint Sky, and some other men from the tribe are out hunting. As they’re hunting tapir in the jungle they meet a group of tribal refugees. The refugees are completely demoralized. Their tribe has apparently been ravaged by another greater group of people and they are fleeing. The tribe requests safe passage through the jungle and they disappear.
Back at the village, Flint sky says this to his son:
Flint Sky: Those people in the forest, what did you see on them?
Jaguar Paw: I do not understand.
Flint Sky: Fear. Deep rotting fear. They were infected by it. Did you see? Fear is a sickness. It will crawl into the soul of anyone who engages it. It has tainted your peace already. I did not raise you to see you live with fear. Strike it from your heart. Do not bring it into our village.
This is important. We learn that Jaguar has a good father who is perceptive enough to see how shaken his son is and proactive enough to speak into his life. His father sees that fear is a disease and quickly tries to inoculate his son to it’s effects. He describes fear as a sickness that has to be engaged to be effective and so he gives his son the wise advice to strike it from his heart. This scene moves me every time I watch this movie.
That evening a tribal elder tells a story to his people who as they gather around a campfire. Jaguar Paw listens as the old man tells this story:
And a Man sat alone, drenched deep in sadness. And all the animals drew near to him and said, “We do not like to see you so sad. Ask us for whatever you wish and you shall have it.” The Man said, “I want to have good sight.” The vulture replied, “You shall have mine.” The Man said, “I want to be strong.” The jaguar said, “You shall be strong like me.” Then the Man said, “I long to know the secrets of the earth.” The serpent replied, “I will show them to you.” And so it went with all the animals. And when the Man had all the gifts that they could give, he left. Then the owl said to the other animals, “Now the Man knows much, he’ll be able to do many things. Suddenly I am afraid.” The deer said, “The Man has all that he needs. Now his sadness will stop.” But the owl replied, “No. I saw a hole in the Man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want. He will go on taking and taking, until one day the World will say, ‘I am no more and I have nothing left to give.'”
This story continues another overarching theme for Apocalypto introduced with the quote at the beginning of the film from American historian, Will Durant – “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” I think of this theme as “the nature of man.” The story the old man tells describes the downfall of the greater Mayan people who are on their way to destroy Jaguar Paw’s tribe even as he tells it. As far as this theme goes, the entire movie can be described as the fall of a small people to a greater people, and of the great people to an even greater people as we see at the very end of the movie.
Jaguar Paw wakes the next morning to see his tribe is being attacked. His people don’t stand a chance. Presumably, this is the same group that destroyed the lives of the harried people the hunting party met in the jungle the day before. Jaguar Paw takes his pregnant wife and son and manages to hide them in a pit. The pit saves their lives but also endangers them since they cann’t climb out.
I really appreciate that Jaguar Paw’s entire struggle for the rest of the movie is motivated by a desire to save his family. This is a far cry from the macho revenge motivation or any of the other self-centered reasons for fighting we see in many action movies. Jaguar Paw’s entire world is reduced to the need to save his wife and children. This is another reason Apocalypto is my all-time favorite movie. The purity and simplicity of the main character’s struggle and motivation.
Jaguar Paw leaves his family to do a pretty good job of fighting the men raiding his camp and almost kills one named Middle Eye when he is taken down. His life is spared but Middle Eye in his rage slits Flint Sky’s throat right in front of Jaguar Paw. As morbid as it is, this is one of the best moments of the movie. Flint Sky chooses to make his death his last gift to his son. With his final breath Flint Sky tells his son not to fear and then he demonstrates the kind of fearlessness he’s talking about as he dies. Gets me every time.
Skipping ahead, Jaguar Paw has escaped and is being relentlessly pursued by several of the men who were his tribe’s captors including Middle Eye and the leader of the pack, Zero Wolf–one bad dude. Jaguar Paw has his back to a huge waterfall and the men are about to kill him so he jumps. Surviving the jump and standing on the bank of the river Jaguar Paw is understandably full of adrenaline and thinks he has successfully escaped. He yells this to the men standing atop the waterfall:
“I am Jaguar Paw, son of Flint Sky. My Father hunted this forest before me. My name is Jaguar Paw. I am a hunter. This is my forest. And my sons will hunt it with their sons after I am gone.” He then taunts the men above by waving for them to follow him as to say “Come after me if you have the balls.”
For any dude watching this movie, this is pure manly gold–the moment when you start nodding your head, pumping your fist, and yelling “Yes!” I particularly love how Jaguar Paw includes his father in his speech–it’s part of his identity.
His pursuers jump though. You can see the “oh crap” in Jaguar Paws eyes. He’s been running all night and he has to keep running. He doesn’t get very far before he falls into a bog of quicksand. He grabs a vine or branch and pulls himself out. He is “reborn of mud and earth” as a creepy little girl prophesies earlier in the movie. This is when Jaguar Paw really overcomes his fear. Covered in quicksand he says “I am Jaguar Paw. This is my forest. And I am not afraid.” This is when the hunter becomes the hunted. He knows the jungle and he is in his element. He starts picking off his pursuers one by one. Getting one with poison frog darts and clubbing Middle Eye to death. When he lets go of his fear he begins to fight back.
Ultimately, Jaguar Paw defeats all of his enemies and gets to his family in time to save them. The last scene of the movie shows Spanish conquistadors approaching land in their boats the idea is that the powerful Mayan tribe that defeated Jaguar Paws tribe will soon succumb to an even greater power.
Fear is one of the most destructive things we’ll encounter in our lives. Apocalypto is an amazing movie about a man’s journey to save his family and overcome fear. There’s so much strength and wisdom to draw from this story.