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Wara Wara and Apocalypto: Films set in Medieval Central and South America

By Murray Dahm

Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is a fascinating, if controversial and flawed, film depicting the indigenous peoples of South America just prior to their contact with European conquerors. As we said in the last article, Apocalypto is actually the last film in a long line of fascinating films. And so, to look at that line, we’ll examine the beginning of it – the Bolivian José Maria Velasco Maidana’s 1930 film Wara Wara – and the end of the line with Apocalypto.

Wara Wara is a 1930 silent Bolivian film directed by José Maria Velasco Maidana, long thought lost, until a print was rediscovered in 1989. This print was then painstakingly restored and premiered in 2010. It is the only surviving film from Bolivia’s silent era. Wara Wara tells the tale of the eponymous Inca princess in the southeast part of the Inca Empire (the Hatun Colla) during the 16th century Spanish conquest. The Spanish massacre her people and she, along with the high priest Huillac Huma and several survivors, flee into the mountains. There, she is rescued from the clutches of two conquistadors by a noble and chivalrous Spaniard, Tristan.

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Tristan is wounded in his defence of Wara Wara and she nurses him back to health. They fall in love. Their peoples cannot accept this union, and both are condemned to death. There are obvious similarities to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and other source material (such as the Tristan and Iseult myths) although an earlier version of the film made in 1925 was set in contemporary times and with the gender roles reversed. This had to be abandoned – an Aymara man and a white woman was unacceptable in 1925. In the film, Tristan and Wara Wara escape and make their way to the sacred Lake Titicaca.

The film had 32 showings in 1930 before being lost. When it was rediscovered (by the grandson of the director in La Paz), there were 63 reels of nitrate film footage, not the final film. The shots of the film were therefore reconstructed from reviews of the 1930 showings. It took twenty years to restore the film for a variety of reasons and involved film experts in Germany and Italy. It was first copied onto acetate and then digitised. The film is an important preservation of Bolivian filmmaking and shows local attitudes to both colonialism and ethnic blending.

The restoration of the print is amazing, and the images are unbelievably clean and clear. Even for so early a film, the Spanish equipment and clothing looks as it should. There is an arquebus being fired, a skirmish and even a small cavalry action (accurately reflecting the small numbers of horses involved). The indigenous dress and decoration also look fine and several dances are involved which may reflect Bolivian folk dances. The restored film has been provided a soundtrack, taken from one of the polymath filmmaker Maidana’s own later compositions of a ballet.

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Apocalypto is set in the early 16th century (perhaps as early as 1502), and Europeans only make the briefest of appearances at the close of the film. This setting could be Christopher Columbus’ fourth journey in 1502 or a later expedition (some accounts say the film is set in 1511 and the DVD commentary claims this date too). Using indigenous American and Mexican actors and the Yucatec Maya language, the film continued the original language model Gibson had set with The Passion of the Christ (2004). Apocalypto, filmed in the first half of 2006, however, doesn’t need much language at all; it is as tense an action-chase movie as you will see anywhere – the black jaguar scene is still absolutely breath taking.

The film’s deliberate lack of CGI effects is also welcome and still refreshing more than ten years on. There was some criticism of the film’s inaccuracies (and apparent ideology that that the brutal Maya civilisation ‘deserved’ to be conquered) but many film makers (including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Spike Lee) greatly admire the film. It didn’t help that Gibson had just had a huge amount of negative press over drunken anti-Semitic rantings prior to the film’s release.

The decline of the Maya as depicted in the film, the accompanying brutality and the copious blood and human sacrifices (to assuage the gods) were criticized as not reflecting the true nature of the Maya. The film was accused of ignoring the many positive achievements of the Maya. Yet the brutality and human sacrifice are borne out on some surviving Maya murals and architecture (especially those at Bonampak) and cannot be explained away as not something modern descendants of the Maya would want to focus on. It is true that a culture like that of the Aztecs was even more brutal and sacrificed huge numbers of captives, but human sacrifice did exist within Mayan culture. These features certainly communicate the idea of a bloody decline into apocalypse. The horror of the amount of death (and using living victims as target practice) is visceral.

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Gibson admitted he had invented the idea of ‘live target practice’ in the context of the film but, given the brutality of the villains, it is entirely believable, not to mention influential – Game of Thrones copied it in season 6, episode 9. The focus of criticism on blood sacrifice took attention away from the other (relevant) themes of the film – that the Mayan civilisation fell because of environmental degradation and deforestation, excessive consumption and political corruption. Rewatching it now, it has more resonance with current climate change debates. The lime stucco which covered the massive buildings of the classical Maya required thousands of acres of forest to be cleared. These themes are universal and affect modern culture as much as they affected ancient ones. Unfortunately, this message was somewhat lost in the hubbub.

One criticism of the violence and warfare in Apocalypto is that the historical consultant, the archaeologist Richard Hansen, was an expert in early Mayan culture, pre-dating the events of the film in the early 16th century by a millennium. Hansen, however, speaking in 2007, was excited to be involved, seeing the film as a way of focussing the world’s attention on Mayan history. He falsely claimed that filming entirely in the indigenous language of the Maya something never seen before – perhaps this was true for the Maya, but it had been done with other cultures. Hansen had clearly never seen Return to Aztlán even though Gibson used that film as a reference.

Hansen claimed that the film owed a great deal to his work at the archaeological site of El Mirador, even stating that Gibson engaged him after watching a documentary of his work there. The set was modelled on the buildings at El Mirador and the criticism of the film and Hansen as a consultant on Apocalypto therefore hold some weight since El Mirador flourished from the 6th century BC until the 1st century AD and was abandoned in the 9th century – 600 years before Apocalypto was set. The buildings in the film were therefore a blend of styles and time periods as was a great deal of other detail in the film.

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Hansen did claim that some of the body paint and bone piercings were artistic license, although the body paint of other films has not been criticized and does marry with artistic depictions. The tattoos, scarification, and jewellery (ear spools, jade teeth and others) were based on pottery fragments and the archaeological record (from El Mirador) and so no doubt accurate (just for a film set much earlier). Gibson also used same weapon maker who had worked in Braveheart, Simon Atherton.

Hansen made a very interesting point about the film, however, and it is worth remembering for any historical film. He claimed that the publicity the film brought him and his work in Guatemala was a major benefit to the discipline of Mayan archaeology as a whole – more people would be exposed to Mayan archaeology through even a bad or poorly received film than could ever hope to be reached by conventional means. Hansen’s involvement gave him social leverage with the rich and famous in Guatemala and he was able to promote the cause of preserving Mayan heritage and archaeological sites.

We can also briefly mention two animated Disney films which are technically set in medieval pre-contact America; The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) and its sequel Kronk’s New Groove (2005) (there was also a television series The Emperor’s New School 2006-2008). These depict a fictional Inca emperor, Kuzco, and the film crew studied the 15th century Inca citadel complex Machu Picchu for the film. Interest in this subject began around the time of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ journey. It was originally titled Kingdom of the Sun but not released until 2000. We probably do not need to dwell on the 1964 Italian-Spanish peplum film Hercules Against the Sons of the Sun pitting the Greek demi-god against the Incas but it is on Youtube if you wish to partake.

The films which make the indigenous peoples of medieval America their main subject are a niche collection of movies. Remarkably, there are more such films than other medieval pre-contact cultures (although films like Rapa-Nui (1994) and The Dead Lands (2014) might be considered). As always in films of medieval subjects, aspects of warfare are never far away in the narrative, but these films do provide the viewer with much to think about. They are therefore well worth the effort to track down. Happy viewing.

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Murray Dahm is the new movie columnist for Medievalists.net. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

Click here to read more articles from Murray

Top Image: Apocalypto (2006)

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