Tuesday, January 31, 2006

"The End of the Spear" -- A Movie Review

The End of the Spear
An Every Tribe Movie production, starring Louie Leonardo

Movie Review by Richard Kew

Exactly fifty years ago, in January 1956, the United States was galvanized when it learned that five young men, missionaries in the Ecuadorian portion of the Amazon River basin, had been speared to death on a sand bar that jutted into a remote tributary where they were attempting to reach a savage indigenous tribe. Life magazine carried the story, and about eighteen months later the widow of one of the men, Elisabeth Elliot, published her extraordinary telling of their tale, Through Gates of Spleandor. This book is now considered a missionary classic.

At precisely the same time these men were giving up their lives for the Lord Jesus Christ in a remote jungle I came into contact with the first lively Christian people I had ever met, and during the following years as I was slowly discovering the meaning of the faith, this story was almost always there in the background. Implicit in my responding to Christ's claim on my life was the notion that there might be a high price to pay for taking up this challenge of faith, and the deaths of
Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, and the others was used as illustration.

Before I saw it I wondered, therefore, what filmmakers would do with this stirring tale once they got their hands on it. I came away from the theatre understanding better what the whole business was about. This was the first movie based on facts that I had ever seen that recounted events without hyping them and seemingly without distorting it for its own ends. Indeed, knowing well the stream of evangelicalism from which these missionaries came, I would have to say that the whole thing was
probably grossly understated rather than over-sold.

The movie is a story within a story. It tells, mainly from the viewpoint of the tribal people, the Waodani or Auca, what was going on. It cuts from the missionaries' homes and families to the homes and families of these little indigenous groups living in the jungle, and how with the aid of an old Piper Cub, their worlds began to transect one another. Finally, the five men, leaving their wives and children back in relative safety, encountered the warriors of the tribe on that spit of sand where Nate Saint had landed his little craft.

All seemed to go well at first, then as a result of a confusion of lies of misunderstanding the warriors became frightened, and turned on the missionaries and brutally murdered them with their spears. Among the young warriors was Mincayani, and it was he who put his weapon through the chest of Nate Saint, seeing, as he did so, the photograph of Nate's young son, Steve, taped to the dash of the little plane.

Following the massacre, several of the women in the group put their own lives on the line and went with their children to live among the Waodani, helped nurse them through an epidemic of polio. Bit by bit these women played their part in enabling these folks to respond to Jesus Christ. I heard this part of the story first hand, because Elisabeth Elliot, one of the women and widow of Jim Elliot, the Wheaton-educated spiritual guru of the group, was a parishioner of mine thirty years ago. She and her daughter, Valerie, now spouse of a Presbyterian pastor, were part of that team.

Flash forward forty years, and Rachel Saint, Nate's unmarried sister who had lived all this time among the Waonani, dies of cancer, and Steve, the boy whose picture was taped to the plane's dash, goes down to Ecuador with his wife to participate in his aunt's funeral. While there the indigenous people challenge Steve to give up his comfortable life in Florida and to live among them. This he does, and in the process gets to know Mincayani, his father's murderer -- and the two men become like
father and son.

This is heavy stuff, but says something profoundly significant about the power of the Gospel to bring about reconciliation. The message is not presented in a preachy way, but with tact and sensitivity. By the end of the movie I was glued to my seat, profoundly moved to the point of trauma by all I had seen. Realizing that this might be the response of so many, the credits start rolling and have imbedded in them hilarious home video of the real Steve Saint and the real Mincayani when Saint
brings him on a visit to the United States.

We left the multiplex touched, moved, enriched, challenged, and entertained. Half of the profits from this film will go toward the work of an indigenous peoples' fund that Steve Saint has set up to preserve the ancestral lands of the Waonani, and other tribal peoples.

This was cinema at its best, and said something about the majesty of the Christian gospel when it touches the lives of ordinary men and women, calling them to go into all the world. Having known well one of the ordinary women who was part of that set of circumstances, I realize that the events in this production were about beings whose richness of faith enabled them to rise above the natural limitations of their own humanity.

For the last week I have been thinking of some words written by Jim Elliot in October 1949 which have forever been tied to that incident in the waters of the Amazon basin, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose."

1 comment:

Alexander M Jordan said...

Hi Richard:

I appreciate your review of the movie, but it seems to me that your personal connection with the story might have really helped you enjoy this film on the level that you did.

I too was familiar with the story going in to see the film, and I felt that the movie does not do the real story justice at all. You can read my review on my blog, Jordan's View.

But I'm glad that some people like yourself are appreciating it and I hope the movie does succeed, because more stories like this need to get made.