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"Apocalypto" Earns Failing Grade

Mel Gibson Film Plays Fast and Loose with History, UC Riverside Scholar Says

“Apocalypto” should be viewed as entertainment, not historical fact

(December 8, 2006)

Zachary HrubyEnlarge

Zachary Hruby

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( -- Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto,” which opened Dec. 8, gets a thumbs down from University of California, Riverside Maya scholar Zachary X. Hruby, who was asked to pre-screen the movie by National Geographic.

"The film feeds into old stereotypes about the Maya being savages," he said. "If it's a hit, it could have a lasting effect on the way the public views the ancient Maya, and by extension, the modern Maya."

Hruby earned his Ph.D. in Anthropology at UC Riverside and is currently a lecturer on campus, teaching a class called “Language and Culture.” He was the co-director of a blue jade research project, along with Professor of Anthropology Karl Taube, his faculty advisor. Other UCR scholars who study Maya culture include Professor Wendy Ashmore and Professor Scott Fedick.

Hruby’s comments about the movie can be seen in a video and a Question and Answer section on the National Geographic Website. His review of the movie is scheduled to appear in the San Francisco Chronicle on Dec. 11.

“Hundreds of men are sacrificed on an Aztec-style sacrificial stone, their headless bodies thrown into a giant ditch reminiscent of a Holocaust documentary or a scene from the Killing Fields,” Hruby writes in the review. “Problem is, there exists no archaeological, historic, or ethnohistoric data to suggest that any such mass sacrifices, numbering in the thousands, or even hundreds, took place in the Maya world.”

During a telephone interview, there was little that sounded positive. “The regalia that the king was wearing looked accurate,” Hruby said. Other than that, he said the filmmakers earned a failing grade on the history depicted.

“They are showing murals from the time of Christ, and saying that they were current in 1524,” he said. And they have recreated the murals, but altered the imagery to make the Maya look more bloodthirsty.

“In the trailer for the film they actually repaint the famous Bonampak murals to show the king holding a human heart, instead of making a simple hand gesture,” Hruby said.

When he is not teaching at UC Riverside, Hruby works in downtown Riverside at a cultural resources management firm, called CRM TECH, conducting archaeological investigations in Riverside County to address issues related to culture and ancestry.
A detail from a sacred Maya mural at San Bartolo — the earliest known Maya painting, depicting the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National GeographicEnlarge

A detail from a sacred Maya mural at San Bartolo — the earliest known Maya painting, depicting the birth of the cosmos and the divine right of a king Photo by Kenneth Garrett © National Geographic

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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