Maybe Hollywood is not the best history teacher

It is not surprising to assume that the creative minds of cinema were going to slightly alter the historical accuracies of films pertaining to various empires throughout history, but the sheer exaggeration and misunderstanding of certain cultural aspects and the blatant inaccuracies that some films are guilty of have easy engraved dangerous misconceptions amongst countless of viewers throughout time. The lack of attention to the historical back drops behind these movies have not only provided viewers with misinformation but have also distorted the true image of numerous historic civilizations and societies far from what they actually were.

The 2006 film Apocalypto follows tribe of Mesoamerican natives residing in pre-Columbian Central America who are attacked and taken to what appears to be a Mayan city leaving the story’s main protagonist to escape the Mayans and reunite with his family. While the film’s large Native American cast and the use of Yucatec Maya as the dialogue for the film had most of the audience praising the movie for its attention to detail, the portrayal of the Mayans were far from accurate. The departure from historical facts would not be as harmful to the general consensus of this ancient civilization if mere dates, characters, or locations were fabricated but what this film does is dramatically change the historical image of the Mayan empire into that of brutal bloodlusting savages.In reality, the Mayans were a ciliization that did indeed practice warfare as any expanding empire would but was also known for its incredible advancements in the fields of science, mathematics, and astrology; certainly not the brutality depicted in the film that had hundreds of people dying in the process of a single ceremony (the Aztecs were the closest of all to this haunting affair). What the film Apocalypto inevitably does for the audience is corrupt the image of one of ancient history’s most succesful empires in the Western Hemisphere into a barbaric shell of its true self that continues the unfortunate trend of providing the masses a misunderstanding of foriegn ancient empires.

Unlike true the actually Mayan empire, the film Apocalypto has a scene that involves the sacrificing of hundreds of humans. This is a far cry from how the Mayans actually performed sacrifices as the sacrifice of human life was incredibly rare and far less extreme.

Another notable film that also did a splendid job of completely distorting reality for the sake of entertainment was the 2006 film 300 which centered around the Greco-Persian wars with the Battle of Thermopylae between the Persians and the Spartans. While the manner in which the movie is directed paints the Spartans to be the heroic underdog (and to be fair, 300 versus an entire army are not favorable odds) the long history behind these two warring parties goes beyond the uneven battle that has been the stuff of legends. In a YouTube video from the channel Cracked, a quick look into both Spartan and Persian society demonstrates how the film’s portrayal of Spartans were incredibly misleading as the Spartans had established an incredibly strict caste system that enforced not only slavery but also an elite military class. The Persians, who were depicted in the movie as this cruel invading power, were actually a highly diplomatic empire that utilized a much less restrictive style of government and even refrained from the use of slaves unlike the Spartans.

Image result for 300 persians

300 portrayal of the Persian army’s elite fighting force the immortals (shown above) is a great departure from how historical records have described them (shown to the left). Another instance of how film directors can greatly change the image of historical empires.

A depiction of the traditional clothing, weaponry, and armor of an Achaemenid soldier

What Apocalypto and 300 have done for the Mayan and Persian empire was not bring their rich and unique culture to the silver screen nor acknowledge their unquestionable contributions to mankind but rather depict these incredible empires as villainous figures. As a student who had viewed these films as an impressionable child I was convinced that these spawning empires were tyrannical forces that left death and destruction in their wake and it was not until I began to expand my knowledge of ancient empires did I realize just how wrong these films and many more truly are. My biggest concern however, is that for the millions who have seen films like these and have not learned the true history behind these defaced empires will harbor this negative misconception.


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