Michael Aakhus: Snubs nose at Mel Gibson's Apocalypto

Historians in the News

Michael Aakhus, the University of Southern Indiana's (USI) resident Maya expert, had low expectations for the authenticity of Mel Gibson’s latest film, Apocalypto.

After seeing the film, he said his expectations were met.

"If you like action films, you should enjoy it - but if you are going to learn history, stick to your books," Aakhus said.

Apocalypto, filmed on site in the Yucatec dialect, which Aakhus said is used in the northern section of the Maya region, concerns the fate of a young man chosen for sacrifice during the decline of the Maya civilization.

Aakhus, associate dean of the USI College of Liberal Arts and professor of art, has traveled throughout Mesoamerica since the 70's and has led an annual spring break Maya Art and Culture tour since 1996.

He teaches a course on the ancient art of Mexico and has lectured on the subject in the United States and Mexico.

"The setting in the rain forest was wonderful, and reminded me of the time I stayed with the Lacandon people in Chiapas," said Aakhus.

"This group remained quite isolated into the 20th century and there is a great book about them, The Last Lords of Palenque, which I would recommend," he said.

"The indigenous hunter groups in the film may have been based on the Lacandon."

Aakhus was less impressed with Gibson's portrayal of city culture.

"I had hoped to see some great images of the Maya buildings and wonderful costumes, but I have to admit that I saw neither."

"The fabulous aspects of material culture that we see in the reliefs, paintings, and burial remains imitated for the film looked poorly conceived."

"The textiles which the Maya to this day pride themselves on looked more like rags, and the body ornament may have been jade, but looked like plastic."

He continued, "The sets and buildings showed that plaster was an important finish to the buildings but many of them were left unplastered and not properly painted."

"The high culture was portrayed as brutal and decadent which did not provide insight into the remarkable art, architecture, books, literature and advanced science of the Maya." ...

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