Glyphs – The Ancient Maya and the Film Industry, Part IV

Animation is Getting Better than Live Action

The best recent films about the Maya are both cartoons: The Road to El Dorado is an unlikely animated musical, featuring the vocal skills of Elton John, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Rosie Perez, and Edward James Olmos.

The film is very loosely inspired by the true story of two Spanish castaways, captured by the Maya of Yucatan in 1511, some years before the arrival of Cortez, who in 1519 tried to enlist them in his Conquest. One, Gerónimo de Aguilar, a former priest, joined up. The other, Gonzalo Guerrero, remained with his adopted people, and eventually died fighting the Conquistadors. (Even more unlikely, the film has a happy ending: The jovial citizens of El Dorado are spared their own World End, and the castaways leave the city with their sexy sidekick Chel, played by Rosie Perez. The three lose the gold, but save their self-respect.)

King Tarabak of El Dorado is modeled after the so-called “Fat Cacique”, a Classic ruler of “The Ik’ Site” in northern Guatemala, whose workshops produced dozens of vases painted with distinctive pink glyphs …and featuring a distinctively portly ruler.
Justin Kerr photograph of Mayan VaseJustin Kerr photograph of Maya Vase


These vases were all brought to light by “tomb raiders” like Lara Croft.) Temples, costume, haircuts, glyphs, the Maya ballgame, even the spears, sandals and other details are pretty correct. This accuracy is thanks to archaeologist John Pohl, adviser to the film, who did his best to keep the film honest. Alas, the big fish and the golden-walled pyramids are fantasy, but at least the architecture is right.


It occurs to me that the trope of the Hidden City is also based loosely on history: Conquistadors didn’t bother to invade the Maya in the central Peten jungle of Guatemala for 250 years; it was not until 1697 that they captured the kingdom of Tayasal. Tayasal is the modern Flores, the Maya jungle city into which tourists fly on their way to Tikal. Even today the area is heavily forested, one of the largest patches of rainforest on the continent. Like the Maya of El Dorado, Tayasal’s isolation delayed the End of their World for centuries.

The second cartoon is a short called Kichwa, made apparently by film students at the French École Supérieure des Métiers Artistiques.

Kichwa by Esma-Movie
This French school is pretty prolific, producing dozens of shorts that are charming and technically excellent. Kichwa features time travelers and a Maya civilization, placed, like the City of the Crystal Skulls, in Peru. If one can ignore that jarring error, the kids got the visuals pretty well, and the story is rather fun.

Having written these four at one sitting, I expect I have neglected a Maya-themed film or two. There are rumors of other 2012 end-of-the-world films coming soon to a multiplex near you.


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