I wouldn’t go so far to say that [my involvement in gay causes is] a Catholic thing, but I did receive a very good sense of community and of service, the idea of being of service.
— Chad Allen, The Advocate (25 November 2003)
“From a true story,” begins End of the Spear, a well-meaning, peculiarly wrongheaded movie in which Ecuadorian “savages” are converted to Christianity. While this “story” is hardly new, it is told here with a particular forcefulness. This means two things: the film is, in its way, upfront in its politics (dark, loin-clothed locals = bad; white, plaid-shirted outsiders = good), but it is also clumsy in its execution.
“Some people say we live in a world of irreconcilable differences,” narrates Steve (Chad Allen), sounding as if he’s talking about divorces. “Others say true peace, everlasting peace, can’t be achieved because we haven’t found s way to change the human heart.” (It’s a detail, but aren’t these “others” saying pretty much what the first people say?) The as yet unidentified son of the fatefully named missionary Nate Saint (also played by Allen), Steve proceeds to describe his long “journey,” undertaken, he says, with the Waodani warrior Mincayani (Louie Leonardo). “The events of that journey,” he asserts, “will change what a lot of people say.”
This might be the case if these “events” were rendered in a more convincing way. But Jim Hanon’s film is so awkward and anachronistic that it raises more questions than answers. Then again, and importantly, it is surely commendable that this Christian saga promotes nonviolence, given the preponderance of mainstream media violence committed in the religion’s name. Further, the casting of the irrepressibly out Chad Allen as the saintly father and lesson-learning son suggests that the filmmakers are assuming some openness and good will on the part of its Christian audience. And more power to it for making such assumptions, so quietly and so confidently.
At the same time, though, End of the Spear falls back on unpleasant stereotypes in narrative and representation. Steve first appears as a cherubic boy (Chase Ellison), in 1956 and wearing an era-appropriate kid’s cowboy hat, worried that his father might be in danger in the jungle (which you’ve seen briefly, looking scary). When he asks whether his dad would fight back if attacked, Nate soothes him by saying, “We can’t shoot the Waodoni. They’re not ready for heaven. We are.” And so the boy watches his dad fly off with the idea of rescuing the Waodanis, currently engaged in a fatal vengeance competition with a neighboring tribe. Though Nate and his fellows speak no Waodani, they imagine they will land their plane (on a nearly impossible-to-land-on riverbank) and be greeted as saviors.
Though Nate (and by extension, Steve) imagines he’s doing only good (“We have one chance to reach these people!”), the natives can’t possibly know what to make of these strangers. Helpful subtitles let you know that the Waodanis call the plane a “wood bee” and fear the foreigners (“We must spear them!”) and a helpful early scene shows that one of their number, a girl named Dayumae (Christina Souza), has been brutally kidnapped by white men. When Steve says later, “I had heard the violent stories of the Waodanis,” you might be inclined to think he’s missed this other side of “events.” Still, he and his dad believe that the tribe needs help to “escape a prison they couldn’t escape from on their own.”
Such evangelical earnestness leads Nate and his friends to be thrilled when the natives show up, all high-fiving and cheering each other while Mincayani and his fellow Waodanis approach with spears raised. That is, the white guys are paying precious little attention to the very people they want so much to “save.” When things go wrong and the spears end up in the missionaries’ chests, the music swells and beatific light bathes the fallen, especially Nate, whose dying words comprise the only Waodani phrase he’s learned — from Steve — meaning “I’m your friend.”
Astounded to hear his language spoken (gasped) at him by this scary stranger, Mincayani is haunted by the memory for years (though not haunted enough to age much: he looks pretty much the same throughout the film, though little Stevie Boy spends the decades becoming the spitting image of his father). Though the wives of the slain missionaries are horrified to learn of their husbands’ deaths, they vow to continue their work, several deciding to go into the jungle (one with wide-eyed daughter on her hip), along with Dayumae, who, as it turns out, has been raised by and now works for Nate’s sister, Rachel Saint (Sara Kathryn Bakker). Though Mincanyani is suspicious of these white ladies, his charismatic tribesmate Kimo (Jack Guzman) accepts Jesus Christ as his personal savior, or something like that — he has his own language and martyr myth to structure the conversion — and helps the strangers settle in.
Settling is something of a theme here — not in the sense of settling for less, but settling within, accepting and finding a kind of “peace” in a community. And if the “events” represented here tend to preach to the converted, they do offer an alternative to the depressingly low-aiming pictures that usually fill the multiplexes in January and February.