Martyrs and Miracles

Washington City Paper | January 20, 2006
Exactly what to do about the isolated, endangered tribes who live in Asian and Amazon jungles is an irresolvable problem. Rescue them from scientific ignorance and destroy their cultures? Or leave them alone even at the risk of their extinction? The protagonists of End of the Spear don’t worry about such dilemmas: They’re Christian missionaries, and they know they’re right. About everything.

Long after genocide largely went out of fashion among them, Euro-Americans continued to commit horrendous crimes against indigenous peoples. In End of the Spear, however, the missionaries get up to a different sort of mischief. Advertised as a “true story,” the movie recounts the 1956 deaths of five American evangelists, impaled by members of the fierce, vengeance-obsessed Waodani tribe in the Ecuadorean jungle. Spearing visitors is deplorable hospitality, but according to Bill Ewing and Bart Gavigan’s script, the immaculately named Nate Saint (Chad Allen) and his cohorts got pretty much what they were looking for: Before piloting a yellow Piper Cub into Waodani territory, Nate tells his young son Steve (Chase Ellison) that the natives “are not ready for heaven. We are.” In other words, the missionaries were on a suicide mission, representing a cult that’s no less death-worshipping than the Waodanis’.

Later, Steve and several female missionaries, including the boy’s Aunt Rachel (Sara Kathryn Bakker), bring Waodani runaway Dayumae (Christina Souza) back to her people. These visitors are tentatively accepted, and their status improves considerably after they successfully battle an outbreak of polio. (Left unaddressed is the origin of the epidemic, but it probably came from interlopers of some sort.) Eventually, the Waodani start wearing T-shirts and pants and living in shacks. They even swap their murderous Waengongi for the self-immolating Jesus.

End of the Spear is director Jim Hanon’s retelling of his 2005 documentary on the same subject, Beyond the Gates of Splendor. Clips from the earlier film play during the new one’s credits, suggesting that it’s a lot more interesting than the fictionalization. And the new movie is indeed a fictionalization, in at least two regards: (1) The killings of the missionaries apparently happened under different circumstances and for a more commonplace reason. (The Waodani thought the Yanks were after their women.) And (2) the 40-years-later breakthrough moment between the grown-up Steve Saint (now played by Chad Allen) and formerly fierce Waodani warrior Mincayani (Louie Leonardo) involves a special-effects miracle so cheesy it could convert the natives back to their old beliefs.

Crummy FX, bombastic music, and gamy theology aside, End of the Spear is a respectable low-budget special-interest picture. The direction is competent, the acting credible, and the locations (actually in Panama) evocative. But for any except the church-basement crowd, the theme will probably be a deal-breaker, and the conclusion isn’t just a head-shaker—it’s a 360-degree head-spinner. Replacing The New World’s skepticism with the absolute certainty of self-styled martyrs yields a movie that is far more damaging to notions of Euro-American cultural superiority—not that End of the Spear’s intended audience will notice.

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