By Sarah Carlson, Arts Editor
As I sat in the theatre watching End of the Spear, listening to the various sniffles coming from viewers all around me, I realized I hadn’t been that bored and uninterested in a film in years. Maybe when my parents dragged me to see some Star Trek movie when I was 10, and I fell asleep on my mom’s shoulder. Yeah, that was probably the last time I was that bored.
I shifted my weight countless times, checked my watch, yawned and tried to pay attention to the “plot.” Maybe the reason for the tears shed is because Abilene has a large religious crowd, and some of the viewers were manipulated enough to weep over nothing. And there’s the rub: how to make a genuinely religious film without manipulating your audience.
Seeing the success of The Passion of the Christ among religious audiences, studios now seem more likely to greenlight religious and especially Christian-themed films. The success of The Passion, which grossed more than $370 million domestically, baffled the non-Christian world and helped open doors for Christian filmmakers. These open doors are both heartening and depressing when considering the possibilities of what Christians could produce compared to the disappointing films Christians actually produce.
This disappointment oozes out of every crack in End of the Spear, even though the film is based on a true and incredible story of five missionary families living in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador in the 1950s and their encounters with the native Waodani tribe. Many are familiar with the book Through Gates of Splendor, written by Elisabeth Elliot, wife of one of the missionaries. I’ve heard it’s engaging, and you’d probably be better sticking with the novel than seeing the film.
The Waodani are a violent people with violent beginnings. As a child, the leader, Mincayani, escaped another tribe’s attack on his tribe and was forced to flee. The opening chase sequences are confusing because no distinction is made between any of the various tribes. We do see many people get speared, though this isn’t as dramatic as you’d think. The tribesmen pummel their spears with the force of 13-year-old girls.
Not only is the action bad, but the real shame of the film comes from poor filming and editing. The spear fights end in a surprising lack of blood, but you don’t need a lot of blood to convey a bloody battle. Consider sequences from The Last of the Mohicans: Not much blood is seen, but the edits are so quick, you’re overwhelmed with the action and the suspense is heightened. Not here. Here, the action plays out like a reenactment on the History Channel.
After we learn the violent beginnings of Mincayani’s life, the next chapter begins with he and the rest of the Waodani warriors traveling through the Ecuadorian jungles, killing innocent foreigners for reasons that aren’t clear.
Nate Saint, one of the missionaries and father to Steve, who narrates the story, wants to make contact with them to apparently tell them not to kill people. Because the Waodani are so violent, Steve is obviously concerned about his father’s trips into the jungle via plane to visit them.
Before Nate’s final journey to the tribe’s camp, Steve asks him if he plans to shoot the Waodani if they become violent. “I can’t shoot the Waodani,” Nate tells Steve. “They’re not ready for Heaven. We are.” That’s the first reference to anything remotely religious or Christian, other than the term “missionary” mentioned in brief. While the phrase may be well known in Christian circles because of the book and carry certain meanings, no context has been established in the film, and the quote only brings confusion.
First-time director Jim Hanon apparently didn’t want to make an overtly religious film and therefore settles for subtleties. But in this case, considering the true story, it would be helpful for audiences, especially secular ones, to understand what a missionary is and what would posses them to venture to Ecuador to talk with violent tribesmen without knowing the language or the culture. I was raised going to church and knowing missionaries, and I’m still confused.
We learn nothing about the missionaries and their families. No personality traits, no goals, no ambitions, not even all of their names. The limited interaction between the families is sparse and confusing, and we never know why they’re really there or why they care so much about making contact with the Waodani.
The missionaries’ reactions to and encounters with the Waodani reminded me of a scene in Disney’s animated Tarzan, when Jane and her father discover gorillas for the first time.
After yelling random things such as “The Creator God is our friend,” which draws several Waodani out of the jungle, the missionaries jump around, ecstatic. They’re excited, but we don’t know why. What are they trying to prove, change, initiate? The more questions I ask about End of the Spear, the more confused I become.
Well, for several reasons and miscommunication, the five male missionaries are murdered by the Waodani, which is really the beginning of the story but what takes up far too much of the film. The real inspiration of the story comes when Steve and his aunt spend time with the Waodani and learn their customs, all the while teaching them to abandon their violent lifestyles and live in peace. However, the transition from violence to peace, both in the missionaries’ and the Waodani’s lives, plays out unnaturally on screen.
The lives of the missionaries and their families are not done justice in End of the Spear, a poorly made and acted film that has cheesy music playing at least 75 percent of the time.
Most Christians want to support Christian films or stories with family-friendly themes. They falsely assume that critics don’t like these films based on their message and praise the secular award-winners instead. The films that win awards win because they are better made, better acted and better directed.
If Christians seriously want to make a change in Hollywood and produce films with a strong religious message, then its time for Christian filmmakers to get serious.