Appellate Judge Erick Harper reminds one and all that spears, like other pointy objects, should be kept out of reach of children.
No one took my father's life. He gave it.—Steve Saint
If, like me, you grew up in evangelical Christian circles, you've probably heard at one time or another about the January, 1956 massacre of missionaries Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully in the jungles of Ecuador. The incident is the sort of thing that gets mentioned from time to time in conversation, usually in hushed tones, as someone recalls "you know, those guys, those flying missionaries, the ones that were killed in the jungle," or words to that effect. It is something that I seem to have been vaguely aware of for quite some time, even if I never quite knew the whole story or any of the details.
Of course, familiarity with the incident is not limited to those with a particular church upbringing. Life magazine did a major story on the tragedy back when it happened, and there was other significant media attention as well, which made an impact on the collective consciousness of the day. In any case, now the story is available to everyone, regardless of religious background, as End of the Spear, a factually accurate dramatization of those fateful events in the rain forest of Ecuador.
Facts of the Case
The year is 1956. A team from the Mission Aviation Fellowship, including pilot Nate Saint (Chad Allen, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, also playing Nate's son Steve as an adult), seeks contact with the Waodani, an indigenous tribe in Ecuador's Amazon jungles. The Waodani are the most violent society ever recorded by anthropologists, with 60 percent of all adult deaths occurring at the end of a spear. The missionaries believe that their message of Christ's love and peace are just what the Waodani need to convince them to leave their violent ways behind.
Saint and the rest make contact with the Waodani, spending two days making friends with the natives and even giving some of them rides in their "big wood bee," Saint's Piper Cub. However, what seems like a promising beginning ends horribly when the Waodani violence surfaces and the five young Americans are speared to death.
That is not the end of the contact between the missionaries and the Waodani, however. Still believing that God has a purpose for the Waodani and the answer to the chronic violence that threatens to wipe them out, some of the wives and children of the slain evangelists go to the jungle, make peace with the Waodani, and move in with them to stay; it is one of the boldest possible lessons in the Christian virtues of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Despite my unfortunately American-centric plot synopsis above, End of the Spear presents its story in much more balanced terms than one would expect from a film about missionaries going into the jungle and getting killed. Indeed, while much of the story is told through the eyes of young Steve Saint (Chase Ellison, Deadwood) and narrated by the real-life Steve Saint (now aged 55 and living in Florida), as much or more of the story is told from the perspective of the Waodani themselves. Indeed, viewers get such a dose of Waodani culture and attitudes that we understand their motivations and actions better than we understand exactly what is going on with the elder Saint and his associates.
The central character on the Waodani side of the equation is Mincayani, played by journeyman TV actor Louie Leonardo. Mincayani is young and hotheaded, one of the most warlike and violent members of the Waodani. Leonardo gives the best performance in the movie, showing Mincayani's transition from warrior to peacemaker.
End of the Spear is a Fox release, through their Fox Faith imprint. The DVD includes both an anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer and a hack-and-scan version on opposite sides of a flipper disc. Both sides are single-layer; putting a film just shy of two hours long on a single-layer disc doesn't leave much room for extras, at least if the studio wants the actual transfer to be any good. And, thankfully, the transfer is quite good. The film incorporates a lot of stunning footage from the Amazon jungles, including aerial footage, and it all looks fantastic, with very few transfer-related or source-related issues to complain about. Audio is presented in a surprisingly good Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that does a nice job of hurling spears around the room in all directions, as well as the surrounding noises of the jungle and so forth. The only special feature included is a trailer for the 2005 film Beyond the Gates of Splendor, a documentary dealing with the same events depicted here.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, the trailer for Beyond the Gates of Splendor (also by director Jim Hanon, his only other feature-length credit) is the only special feature on this disc. This is unfortunate for more reasons than you might expect. The documentary covered the story of the slain missionaries more effectively and thoroughly and with much more emotional resonance. The presence of the trailer for Beyond the Gates of Splendor on this disc, as well as the excerpt from that documentary that plays over the ending credits, makes the relative inferiority of End of the Spear that much more obvious. For one thing, the documentary spent more time getting to know the missionaries and their families, so that when the tragedy struck, viewers felt the shock and loss more. End of the Spear shortchanges these people, reducing their characters to mere ciphers. As a result, we as viewers care little about them. Their efforts to make contact and even their ultimate loss lack emotional punch. There seems to be an assumption on the part of the filmmakers that viewers will all understand the motivation behind the missionaries' actions, and perhaps even have some knowledge of the historical events depicted. We are expected to understand their aims and accept them as desirable without any real explanation of what is going on. That works fine if, as I did, you grew up with bits and pieces of this story, but other members of the audience might feel a bit left in the dark.
The film suffers from more conventional problems as well. There is, as noted, extensive voiceover narration by the real-life Steve Saint. I'm not one to begrudge him his participation in what is essentially his own story, but the voiceovers really don't add much; they really feel like a holdover from Beyond the Gates. The dialogue delivered by on-screen characters isn't much better, veering between cryptic and schmaltzy. Pacing is a huge problem as well, with large segments of the film taken up with efforts simply to locate the Waodani in the first place. The movie also spends a huge amount of time meandering among the Waodani before the arrival of the missionaries, in extended (and quite violent) depictions of the ongoing raids, spearings, and blood feuds that threaten the very existence of the tribe. This action-as-exposition really does more harm than good in the overall attempt to make the Waodani seem like real people. When the missionaries and the Waodani finally meet, their interactions (which lasted for over two days in real life) are cut short in a rush to get to the pivotal killings, which somehow manage to seem both perfunctory and overdramatized, with a reliance on gimmicks, rather than the emotional truth of the scene, to appeal to our emotions.
Finally, it seems to me that it would be difficult to tell what is essentially a Christian story while tiptoeing around the idea of religion. In an effort to avoid seeming "preachy," the film avoids any clear description of who these people are or exactly what they are up to until after the men are dead; then, when the women make the trip into the jungle, suddenly all inhibitions are lowered and the religious nature of the whole enterprise comes to the forefront. This unevenness makes me think the filmmakers were trying to straddle the fence between being a religious film and a conventional jungle adventure, and the result is unsatisfying. I would think that all members of the potential audience, believers and non-believers alike, would be better able to appreciate a film that is more forthright about its religious orientation, even if they didn't necessarily agree with it or hold the same beliefs.
Regardless of your personal beliefs or background, it is hard not to find something touching about the loss, forgiveness, and reconciliation on display here. The bravery of Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Eliot's going into the jungle to find the Waodani and continue to minister to them after the killings is stunning. The idea of Steve Saint and Mincayani growing to be friends, even a sort of adopted family, staggers the imagination. In my mind, and with my beliefs, I see it as a living, shining example of the power of God over human nature; others will see it as a tribute to the overwhelming power of love over hatred and bitterness.
The problem with this story (and it is a great one) is that it has already been told recently, and better, by this same director.
I hate to say it, but…Guilty! The saga of the men killed in Ecuador and the legacy of forgiveness and love shown by their families is a moving, gripping story, but sadly, End of the Spear fails to make the necessary emotional connections. It does not tell the story of the Saints, Elliots, Waodani, and all the rest nearly as effectively as the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor. I'd recommend the documentary instead.
We stand adjourned.
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• Trailer for Beyond the Gates of Splendor
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