In 1956, Waodani tribesmen in Ecuador speared to death five American missionaries. The incident immediately made the cover of Life magazine. Later one of the widows penned a popular book. An excellent documentary titled “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” was produced a couple of years ago.
And now comes a feature-film version, “End of the Spear,” which is labeled “from a true story.”
The movie’s biggest hurdle, which it never surmounts, is that if you’ve seen the compelling documentary, there’s virtually nothing left for this kind of adaptation to accomplish.
“Spear,” directed and co-written by Jim Hanon (who also directed the documentary), focuses on Mincayani (Louie Leonardo), his fellow Waodani and their way of life, which boils down to “spear or be speared” in one of the most violent cultures ever documented.
Enter the missionaries, who attempt to make contact with the Waodani. Central to the missionaries’ efforts is the plane piloted by Nate Saint (Chad Allen), which allows the missionaries to search the Amazon basin for the elusive tribe. We meet the missionaries early on and are focused on Nate and his young son, Steve (Chase Ellison).
Hanon tells the story from the Waodani point of view, but the maze of tribal alliances and relationships can be hard to follow. Their action sequences—when they spear each other, for example—feel like something is missing, like rhythm.
The tempo feels off the entire movie, and lines that should be funny and moments that should be precious just aren’t, unfortunately.
That said, there are some meaningful moments—like when young Steve wants his dad to say he’ll shoot the Waodani if he gets in trouble.
“Son, we can’t shoot the Waodani,” says Nate. “They’re not ready for heaven. We are.”
Overall, however, “Spear” isn’t nearly as tight as it needs to be. It spans too many years, and the actors aren’t aged well. Furthermore, the film uses a framing device that delivers an odd special effect with a meaning too cryptic to give us the emotional punch we deserve at film’s end.
I watched with an audience, and the best reactions came during the closing credits, which show the real Steve Saint and Mincayani. Indeed, the documentary treatment of these amazing men far surpasses the film adaptation.
Once you’ve seen the real home-movie footage of the missionaries on the beach not long before they lose their lives, a recreation of those sacred moments just seems pointless.
It’s important to note that the same filmmakers are behind both the documentary and feature film. This one-two punch forms the core of a strategy being pioneered by Mart Green and his non-profit Bearing Fruit Communications and for-profit Every Tribe Entertainment.
Green and company aim to produce documentaries for the church, and then adapt those stories for mass appeal as feature films. It’s a unique strategy, but its success will depend on making features as emotionally gripping as the documentaries.
“End of the Spear” doesn’t lead with excellence, whereas “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” does, and it’s excellence in storytelling that will grab the market—and the mind.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence. Reviewer’s Note: The violence in “Spear” isn’t nearly as intense as in many other PG-13 rated movies.
Director: Jim Hanon
Writers: Jim Hanon, Bill Ewing and Bart Gavigan
Cast: Mincayani: Louie Leonardo; Nate Saint (and adult Steve Saint): Chad Allen; Kimo: Jack Guzman; Dayumae: Christina Souza; Steve Saint (as a boy): Chase Ellison.
The movie’s official Web site is here.