By Murray Dahm
When it comes to medieval Europe’s interaction with the Americas, a large amount of the films that have been made focus on Christopher Columbus and his voyages. In all of those films, the object (or victim, if you will) of Columbus’ discoveries were the lands and peoples of what he (incorrectly) thought was the eastern coast of China and the western passage to the spice islands of the East Indies. Whilst the indigenous peoples of the Caribbean and Central America are present to some degree in all such films, they have not been the focus. In this article we will turn our attention to those films which have made the indigenous peoples of medieval America their main subject. As we shall see, this actually uncovers a remarkable set of movies.
The four journeys of Christopher Columbus beginning in 1492, revealed the Caribbean and the wider Americas to the Spanish Empire and the wider world. A Papal Bull in 1494 divided the new world territories between Portugal and Spain, but its divisions were never recognised by England, France, or the Dutch, and those powers soon got in to the ‘America business’.
Exploration and exploitation of the Americas began immediately, fuelled by (exaggerated) tales of riches and wealth awaiting the adventurer and settler. Exploitation and settlement continued for centuries despite cities of gold never being found and the climate not agreeing with many of the new arrivals. Millions of indigenous peoples were killed, died, enslaved or displaced and they had their cultures and societies systematically destroyed.
Some modern studies equate this process and the decline in indigenous populations as genocide. It is difficult to know what the population of the Americas was before the arrival of Europeans and estimates vary as to how much of the population was lost. Some scholars argue that 80% of the population was destroyed within approximately the first century of contact and that is sometimes regarded as a ‘low’ estimate. America in the late 15th century already had complex civilisations of great antiquity of their own but for the most part their technologies were no match for the steel and gunpowder, sickness and disease that the Europeans brought with them.
Some relationships between the Spanish and local populations were more positive and peaceful than others and there were instructions from the Spanish crown to build good relationships with the local populations, but these were largely ignored. The deliberate conquest of territories, when they began in 1519, were in some places rapid and total (and achieved with very few men) while others took decades, even centuries, and local cultures continued to resist foreign domination. Some cultures certainly used the arrival of the Spanish to settle old hatreds and allied with the invaders to defeat their traditional foes.
Films from an indigenous perspective are relatively rare although there are some remarkable exceptions. Maidana’s Wara Wara (1930), Juan Mora Catlett’s Return to Aztlan (1990) and his later Erendira Ikikunari (2006), Carrasco’s The Other Conquest (La Otra Conquista) (1999), and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006) are all worth a watch. In most cases these films are the reassertion of the filmmakers’ own indigenous history from Mexico (and Bolivia) and they want to act as a corrective to the European (and westernised) view of their history.
There are also some films in which the indigenous populations play an important part of the film (rather than simply being extras or victims) such as Echevarría’s Cabeza de Vaca (1991) and even J. Lee Thompson’s Kings of the Sun (1963). Given that these films focus mainly on those on who might best be described as the victims of Spanish conquest, they all have very interesting (perhaps controversial) things to say.
By far and away the most famous (and controversial) of these indigenous films is Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. It was in fact the last of a range of films which began at least as early as 1992 (when interest in the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ was at its height). It was also the one with the most coverage since it was a Hollywood film and made by a ‘big’ director. In many ways, however, Gibson took advantage of the earlier films made (mostly) by Mexican filmmakers. So we shall look at those films first and then examine Apocalypto itself in a later article.
Three Mexican films warrant interest for the perspectives they bring and the filmic pride in Mexican history. Return to Aztlán (In Necuepaliztli in Aztlan) (1990) was filmed on location in Mexico and entirely in the Náhuatl language (the language regarded as closest to that of the Aztecs). The story tells of a drought, perhaps in the year 1468, immediately after the death of Moctezuma I, and the search for a goddess, Coatlicue, to help relieve it. A peasant, Ollin helps in the search and eventually finds the goddess but is himself murdered. While there was criticism of the film’s bewildering plot, it was praised for its authentic depiction of pre-Columbian Mexico and its avoidance of expected stereotypes.
The director was surprised that the film was not included in 1992 celebrations of the discovery of America and he also accused Mel Gibson of taking scenes from his film for the latter’s Apocalypto in 2006. There are indeed some scenes which show similarities to Gibson’s movie although Catlett’s ponderous, mystical chase has nothing of the energy of Gibson’s film so the similarity of some of the ‘chase’ scenes are actually illusory.
Return to Aztlán is available in several versions on Youtube but difficult to track down in other formats. It is wonderful to see Aztec costumes in such an unadulterated way, taken from the various sources available including several codices which the film’s opening shot shows burning. The language itself evokes a sense of time and place. The story is also shown unfolding as the illustrations of a codex and the illustration style is in keeping with surviving Aztec codices. The use of the landscape and surviving architecture adds to this sense of time and place (although, as with ancient ruins in many films, one wonders how the originals looked when not so worn by centuries of exposure to the elements). The remarkable variety of makeup and masks is also fascinating, adding to the sense of the mystical. There are vast tracts of the film without any dialogue at all (although the information contained in the dialogue is essential). We get folklore aplenty such as the hummingbird being the spirt of a dead warrior who has died in combat and which then accompanies the sun on its journey. The chief priest, decorated all in turquoise, attempting to strike the sun with his sacrificial sword to end the drought is actually quite poignant.
In 2006 Catlett made another pre-Columbian film in Mexico, Eréndira Ikikunari starring Xochiquetzal Rodríguez. This film flips the usual perspective and shows the folkloric figure of Eréndira rallying the local population against the invading Spanish. Several descriptions of the film state that its setting is an Aztec one but, according to the folklore, Eréndira was a princess of the Purépecha people (called the Tarascan by the Spanish) rather than the Aztecs. When the Purépecha cazonci (monarch) Tangaxuan II witnessed the fall of the neighbouring Aztec empire to the Spanish, he made a treaty with Hernán Cortés in 1522 and was de facto ruler (both he and Cortés received tribute). This lasted until 1530 when Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán marched against the Tarascan. de Guzmán had been sent to ‘New Spain’ in 1525 to counterbalance Cortés’ power. Tanguxuan was deposed, tortured, and burned at the stake in 1530. There are no contemporary written accounts of Eréndira but she is closely associated with Purépecha culture and opposition to the arrival of the Spanish and resistance to them.
The film was shot in the Purépecha language – and with a soundtrack of authentic Purépecha instruments – and opens at Lord Tangaxuan’s court. It mostly avoids the issue of shooting amongst ruins, generally avoiding pyramids and other authentic structures which are clearly in a modern ruined state. The Spanish are referred to as destroyers of the enemies of the Purépecha (the Aztecs) and that they are therefore the ‘natural’ allies of the Purépecha but that these ‘new gods’ – which represents both the Spanish and Christianity – are coming to destroy all (and the old gods are each shown crucified). In the film, Tangaxuan’s alliance is with de Guzmán rather than Cortés.
The film makes use of a codex and wall paintings which ‘come to life’ at the start of the film, and this aspect of wall paintings come to life is reiterated throughout. Aspects of costume, body paint, masks and blood sacrifice are all shown in intricate and accurate detail. Weapons – mainly spears and bows but also clubs and bladed weapons – and equipment, such as wicker shields and armour, and headgear are also in ample evidence. We see archery practice and small-scale ritualised warfare between aristocrats and their retinues (there are codex depictions of this).
The warfare depicted is traditional and regarded as feeding the old gods (‘to die in war is beautiful’). This begins with long-range archery prowess before hand-to-hand combat begins – this is a series of heroic-warfare, on-on-one conflicts but this aristocrat versus aristocrat fighting (while their less well armoured retinues also fight) may accurately reflect reality. It certainly feels more authentic than medieval shield walls on film which usually devolve into a morass of one-on-one fights. The taking of prisoners for sacrifice and the ritual of sacrifice itself is also shown. The last sacrifice, the burning of Lord Timas, Eréndira’s uncle’s body, is especially sympathetically done. We are shown the ineffectiveness of arrows against Spanish armour. There are only four Spaniards in the battle – but they are still vulnerable at joints in the armour.
The Spanish themselves are mostly represented stylistically (native actors wearing ‘white’ masks). These masked Spaniards then destroy the stone idols of the Purépecha and this makes the film feel very much like a Purépechan mystery play about the protection of culture (Timas proclaims the line: ‘custom must prevail’). During the battle, the mask-wearing actors are replaced by Spanish actors – although they are intercut wearing demon masks.
Women did play an important part in the conquest – married Spanish men were required to bring their wives with them on these expeditions; you couldn’t populate a new continent without them. Cortés enlisted an interpreter, Doña Marina or La Malinche, who was also an adviser to him and the mother of his son, Martin (she is referenced in our next film The Other Conquest). In Eréndira Ikikunari it is the women who drive off the plundering Spaniards when the warriors will not. Eréndira herself then steals a Spanish horse (a ‘hornless deer’), teaches herself to ride, and leads the resistance against de Guzmán, and her own people who have allied with them – ‘women wage war when men don’t defend what’s ours’). The film has a great deal of Eréndira fighting against the perceived place of women in her society and so is an empowering film for women across all ages and cultures. When she rides the horse into battle, she becomes the embodiment of the mother goddess Xaratanga, leading her culture in resistance to the Spanish invader.
The Other Conquest was written and directed by Salvador Carrasco in 1999. It was produced by Alvaro Domingo, son of the famous Spanish opera singer Plácido Domingo who was executive producer. The film is set between the period of 1520 and 1548 and shows the Aztec perspective on the process of colonization in the immediate aftermath of Spanish conquest. It opens with the aftermath of the massacre of the Aztecs at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan in the pouring rain. A single survivor, Topiltzin (Damián Delgado), a scribe and the illegitimate son of Moctezuma II, attempts to preserve the Aztec way of life but is captured and then converted to the Catholic faith (as Tomás) over a period of years. We see him recording the fate of his people on a codex amid the corpses of the struggle for another temple in 1526 where there are accurate Jaguar soldiers and conquistador armour and helmets. This codex recording is the same device as seen in Return to Aztlán.
Later we see the manhandling of a cumbersome cannon through difficult mountain trails, and here the battered, unpolished nature of the armour matches this environment. Carrasco spoke of the idea of an Aztec resisting the conquest by fusing Catholic religion with his own beliefs; the idea of the Virgin of Guadalupe (the patron saint of Mexico and a Virgin Mary but with indigenous features) was central to the genesis of this idea. The message of cultural tolerance (from both sides) is a peculiar one (especially coming from an indigenous perspective). In other films (such as the Columbus films) the idea of tolerance has been inauthentically and artificially tacked on.
Given The Other Conquest’s perspective, it is not surprising to hear the Spanish conquerors being described as the barbarian (although this is not the overall message); there are villains and heroes on both sides. Several of the villains also go unpunished. We get an unprejudiced depiction of a human sacrifice (which is unsettling) but the victim is entirely willing (‘it is what my heart desires’). Her memory is also the inspiration for the Virgin of Guadalupe. The apparent dog sacrifice later in the film was highly controversial (more so than the depiction of human sacrifice). The Other Conquest used several archaeological sites as its sets and these are used well (since they are the scenes of massacres, their modern, ruined state enhances the scene). In The Other Conquest, the Aztec characters speak a language other than Spanish to one another – and it is a facet of their resistance to Spanish rule that they continue to do so – but it was not publicized as a part of the film’s production.
The film was a smash hit in Mexico and has gone on to great approval elsewhere. Carrasco wanted full-blooded indigenous actors and found Damián Delgado, from Oaxaca, a state of Mexico known for its rich indigenous heritage. The role given to Tecuichpo(tzin)/Doña Isabel Moctezuma (Topiltzin’s half-sister and legitimate heir of Moctezuma, played by Elpidia Carrillo) is also a refreshing one (here a(nother) subversive heroine of indigenous culture). Her death as reported in the film is fictional; her descendants still thrive – the film suggests they are the offspring of both Tecuichpo and Topiltzin, children of Moctezuma – ‘the survival of our blood depends on us’. She did bear a daughter to Cortés out of wedlock and had more children to a later Spanish husband (she was the consort of three Aztec emperors and subsequently married three Spanish husbands; she was widowed five times). The Hernán Cortés (Hernando in the film, acted by Iñaki Aierra) is a remarkable look-alike based on existing portraits, played as weak and filled with lust for Isabel.
The Other Conquest, Return to Aztlán (and Eréndira Ikikunari to some extent) are largely spiritual films, regarding a journey of spirit, body (or both), a task which few other medieval films set themselves to the degree these do. Since all are available complete on Youtube, they make for a satisfying watch.
Top Image: The Other Conquest (La Otra Conquista) – 20th Century Fox