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16 November

Pizarro captures Atahualpa at the Battle of Cajamarca, 1532

On this day in 1532, a Spanish expedition led by Francisco Pizarro, whose purpose was expressly to conquer the Inca Empire of South America, captured the Inca Emperor, Atahualpa. As Pizarro arrived in the region, Atahualpa had been waging a civil war against his brother Huáscar. Atahualpa’s generals had just defeated him, killed him and his family and seized his capital, Cuzco. Accompanied by 80,000 troops, Atahualpa was en route for Cuzco to survey the spoils of war. He was resting in the city of Cajamarca when he learned that Pizarro was nearby. Pizarro invited Atahualpa to meet. Atahualpa arrived, with 5,000 troops, ready for trouble. The Spaniards attacked and routed Atahualpa’s army, with no loss on their own side whatsoever. Atahualpa was taken prisoner, but bought time for himself by giving the Spanish vast amounts of gold and silver. Meanwhile, the rest of his troops, under general Rumiñahui, were biding their time, and over the following months appeared on several occasions to be readying a counter-attack. This forced the hand of Pizarro, who decided to kill Atahualpa. As a heathen, Atahualpa was due to die at the stake, but this appalled him as it meant his soul wouldn’t go to the afterlife. So he accepted an offer by Friar Vicente de Valverde to convert to Catholicism, becoming Juan Santos Atahualpa and thus eligible for a more Christian death. On the same day he was executed by strangulation with a garrotte. The rule of the Incas was over.

Apocalypto (2006, dir: Mel Gibson)

Apocalypto ends with a vision of the Spanish arriving in Meso-America, their ships glimpsed by the nameless Mayans who have just been through a sustained barrage of unpleasantness of every sort. It is a wry comic finish to a remarkable film by co-writer/director Mel Gibson, a “just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse” moment of black humour. Or is it? The arrival of the ships can also be read affirmatively as the arrival of the white man and civilisation – a reading made all the more possible by knowledge of Gibson’s headline-grabbing drunken philosophising on racial types. That’s the current problem with films made by or starring Mel Gibson – he’s an unloved and possibly unlovely figure. But let’s not deny him a slap on the back for Apocalypto, a film about a nice young guy called Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who appears to be destined to end up as yet another human sacrifice in the ongoing drive by the Maya authorities to shore up their crumbling empire with ritual slaughter. And that’s pretty much the film – the inexorable journey of Jaguar Paw towards a beheading, and his efforts to prevent himself, his pregnant wife and son from decapitation. Gibson was hot off the success of 2004’s The Passion of the Christ, a film in Hebrew, Aramaic and Latin, so making a film in Yucatec, a language not widely spoken outside Central America, had a sort of precedent. As did the portrayal of intense physical degradation, death, torture and suffering which surrounds Jaguar Paw on his way to the top of the stepped pyramid where he too is to die for the greater good. Because it’s in a foreign language, some see Apocalypto as a film making lofty arthouse claims, and judge it harshly as a consequence. But it isn’t; it’s a visceral, intense, brilliantly paced action movie, with some vague nodding to the mysticism of Terrence Malick in its depiction of the lush jungle – nature, primal, ordered, beautiful, and all that. But it’s far more in thrall to the sort of movie-making that Cecil B DeMille went in for, the “cast of thousands”, the spectacle designed to inspire awe, with barely a need for dialogue at all. Proper old-fashioned Hollywood, in other words. If Yul Brynner were still alive, you can bet he’d have been gagging to be in it.

Why Watch?

  • A reminder that it was the Spanish, from Christopher Columbus onward, who conquered America
  • Watch it, then read the reviews – grudging aren’t they?
  • Dean Semler’s restless, epic cinematography
  • The underdog drama reduced to its basic killer elements

Apocalypto – at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate

© Steve Morrissey 2013

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