Apocalypto, The New Western

Apocalypto (2006) tells the story of the internal struggles between and amongst Native American tribes. Although it is an unlikely example, the film can be considered a Western because the genre is rooted in archetypal conflict–good versus bad, settlers versus aboriginals— and the depiction of the peaceful nature of the protagonist’s, Jaguar Paw’s, community, is deeply contrasted with that of the amoral, callous warrior clan.

The film opens with a bartering scene. It is a simplistic, pre-Columbus era where one tribe trades fish for a portion of the other’s animal. Before capitalist values, it is the acquisition of resources and the superstitions of an advanced, brick-laying tribe, which causes the inter-tribal war that forcibly removes Jaguar Paw and his fellow clansmen from their homes. They are later given the option of freedom, only it becomes evident that it is merely a sick game of false hope: they are to choose between immediate death or a chance to run toward the forest to liberty. But their efforts are futile, as the warriors intend to kill all runners. If the history of the Western is rooted in the way the economy makes the modern man feel, the un-winnable race for freedom highlights the way capitalism causes his loss of agency and feeling of helplessness.

Every traumatic event is tragic; there is no way to stop its dire effects, nor is there any way to its prevent repetition. After experiencing the massacre of his tribe, Jaguar Paw attempts to save his family; he was able to hide them in a borehole just before the invasion. His pregnant wife and son remain pure, deeply buried away from the violence above ground. And because he is a brave man who is attempting to defend whatever is left of his community, he is the quintessential cowboy.

Jaguar Paw is capable of staring at trauma–like when he saw his father’s throat slit, causing him to die slowly with a great deal of suffering–and registering such incidences. He is able to use the pain to guide his morality and defensively kills only those who have wronged him. He follows his own code, prioritizing the security of his family over revenge. By possessing principles of integrity, courageousness and self-sufficiency, and equipped with physical aptitude and inventiveness, Jaguar Paw proves his masculinity; like a cowboy, he comes from the land and is never lost. Furthermore, through a Christ-like sacrifice, he remains both a part of the forest as a wanderer, without claim to a particular plot of land, as well as a man who has salvaged humanity–his mate and their offspring.

Apocalypto would not generally be thought of as a Western, but it does meet the requirements. It’s overall entertaining, but as only a Mel Gibson production could do, the movie cuntily legitimizes America’s national foreign policy as one of manifest destiny; through the implication that the indigenous were responsible for the annihilation of its own people, the US has, in the same spirit the colonizers had, a right to expand. Thus, there is no justifiable reason to feel responsible for a genocide which would have been inevitable without foreign presence. It’s exactly the same logic which led to Brock Turner‘s lenient sentence and caused his father to say “it’s a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life”. Brock Turner should not feel guilty for raping an unconscious woman because he has lost his taste for ribeye steak.


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