In January 1956, the death of five missionaries at the hands of the Waodani tribe of Ecuador was big news around the world; 50 years later End of the Spear, opening Jan. 20 in 1,200 theaters nationwide, recaptures that agony and the astounding change that followed as the power of forgiveness became evident (see "Radical tactic"). But this first dramatic product of a new movie company is also one more example of how Christians are adding to American culture rather than merely trying to subtract harmful elements of it.
Mart Green, an Oklahoma City businessman whose family owns the Hobby Lobby craft chain and the Mardel Christian bookstore chain, founded the new company, Every Tribe Entertainment, in 1998. He told WORLD, "I was raised never to go to movies," and at age 35 "had never been in a theater." But he saw the effect of media on his children and also witnessed the commitment of Bible translators in Guatemala. During conversations at a meeting of the North American Forum of Bible Agencies, the account of the five slain missionaries and the aftermath kept coming up.
Even WORLD played a role, with a Joel Belz column ("Courage for cowards," May 30, 1998) pointing him to Hugh Hewitt's The Embarrassed Believer, a book that encourages Christians to make positive contributions to American culture. Then, one day in his car, Mr. Green heard a tape of Steve Saint, the son of Nate Saint, one of the five murdered missionaries, telling his story. Mr. Green pulled into a Wal-Mart parking lot weeping and decided to make the movie himself.
Mr. Green brought on board director Jim Hanon, who had made commercials for his company, and producer Bill Ewing, a Christian with 43 years of experience in the Hollywood film industry. Together they formed Every Tribe Entertainment with the goal of making a movie that would focus not on the martyrdom of the missionaries but on the Waodani (known to neighboring tribes as "Auca," meaning "savage") and how they changed. "We went down to Ecuador, flew out to the bush, backpacked out, and asked the permission from the Waodani," Mr. Green said.
At first the tribal elders were unwilling. Then the conversation turned to the then-recent Columbine school shooting. "We know the anger and hate that go with that," the elders said. "If our story can help North America, fine."
Mr. Hanon recalls, "We lived with the Waodani for 17 days. . . . We bathed in their river and ate monkey and ate in their huts. The simplicity of their faith and their lifestyle was such an interesting and unique thing for us." The first project was Beyond the Gates of Splendor, a documentary released last year ("Radical love and forgiveness," Oct. 8, 2005). Then came the feature film, End of the Spear, filmed in the jungles of Panama. Professional actors portrayed four of the Indian roles, but the rest were members of an indigenous tribe, the Embera.
Although the Embera had never seen a movie before and didn't know how to act, Mr. Hanon said "they were able to understand what their character was feeling and portray it. It made it not about what was said but about the delivery, the intent, the emotion." Much of the film is in the Embera language: "Doing it in their language also created a great relationship with them. Usually they had to learn the other language."
The documentary and the feature film together cost $20 million to make. The feature film crew spent 90 days in Panama, with 58 of those days in the jungle. "Shooting in a jungle is difficult," Mr. Hanon said. "If you put up a light, you must hack a way through to lay a line." They battled insects, heat, and disease: "At one point as many as 25 percent of our crew were down with being sick. We just had to keep shooting." They were shooting aerial footage near the border of Colombia, the drug haven: "Small planes flying in the jungle is something people keep an eye on."
Despite or because of the difficulties, the result is exquisite. With the cameras capturing the lush beauty of the rain forest, End of the Spear (rated PG-13 for violence) evokes two different worlds that first clash and then are reconciled, and tells the story from two alternating points of view. We get the perspective of Mincayani (based on the real-life Micaye), first shown as a child whose parents are killed in a tribal vendetta and then as the warrior who kills Nate Saint. We also see the point of view of Steve Saint, first as a 5-year-old boy in a missionary household and later as an adult.
Movies generally depict tribal people as indistinguishable stereotypes, but this film brings alive unique personalities within the Waodani tribe. The film shows them smiling, playing, worrying, and being likeable-except for that habit of killing each other. Director Jim Hanon coaxes remarkable performances from the indigenous people who make up most of his cast.
The film also captures the feel of the 1950s in its portrayal of the missionary household, as little Stevie in his cowboy hat overhears the missionaries making their plans and worries about his dad. After the slow-motion scene in which the five missionaries die, we see his grief. Then we see him living with the tribe, playing with the Waodani children, and gradually developing a life-long friendship with Mincayani, who struggles to accept his forgiveness.
The real-life Steve Saint, a missionary pilot like his father, flew the planes in the movie and commented on the script as it was developed. Mr. Saint said that when he lived with the Waodani as an adult, he and his wife showed them movies, with as many as 100 people crowding around the screen in their home. The Waodani said of Hollywood violence, "We killed people we hate, but the foreigners kill people they don't even know."
Mr. Saint showed End of the Spear to the real-life Micaye, wondering whether he would comprehend it. A little way into the movie Micaye said, "Look! That's like me!" Mr. Saint replied, "And see that little boy, he's like me!" Micaye kept up the thrill of recognition, saying throughout the movie, "And that's like . . ."
"When it got to the killing scene," Mr. Saint said, "I held my breath and prayed he wouldn't be offended." Micaye was somber as the movie depicted his character killing the missionaries. "This is our history," he said, "but other people are pretending to be us."
At the end of the movie, Micaye said he felt "very much well." Why? "Maybe now the foreigners who are living angry and killing will see there is a better trail and they will want to walk this good trail."