Deep in the heart of the jungles of Ecuador, along the Amazon River basin, the Waodani Indians are murdering each other to the point of near-extinction. Tribal conflicts (internal and external) have led to a staggering 60 percent mortality rate, and the average Waodani male lives to be just over 30 years old. In response, the Ecuadorian government plans to send in troops to stop the killings and “reclaim” the land, essentially wiping out the Waodani.
It’s the early 1950s and Nate Saint, along with four other young American Christian missionaries, sense the urgency of this crisis and set out to befriend the Waodani people. Nate establishes contact with the remote tribe using a revolutionary aeronautical technique that he invents. Flying his small yellow craft in a tight circular pattern, he dangles a bucket on a rope (which centers itself due to centrifugal force), using it to lower gifts. Then, on Jan. 3, 1956, after weeks of what seems to be a progressing relationship (the Waodani have begun to place gifts of their own in the bucket), Nate and his friends, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Pete Fleming and Ed McCully, land the plane on a sandbar and make face-to-face contact with the Waodani.
Five days later, their speared and hacked bodies lay in the Curaray River.
The story doesn’t end there, though. Narrated by Nate’s son, Steve, End of the Spear dramatically shows how that tragic day forever changes the lives of both the missionary families and the Waodani in a remarkable testimony of God’s redemptive power.
Beyond the obvious honorable actions of each of the five missionary men and their families, Nate is shown as a loving father. When Steve (whose character in this film is a few years older than he was in real life) shows concern about his father leaving on yet another dangerous flight, Nate showers him with affection: “Do you know how far away the sun is? Do you know that’s a fraction of how much your daddy loves you?” And after Steve asks his dad about shooting the Waodani if they attack, Nate responds with one of the movie’s most powerful lines: “We can’t shoot the Waodani, son. They’re not ready for heaven—we are.”
As the son of a murdered man, Steve, according to Waodani culture, is supposed to avenge his father’s death. He refuses to do so, even when the man responsible tells him of his guilt. Rather, Steve extends mercy. “No one took my father’s life,” he explains. “He gave it.”
The Waodani men who killed the missionaries are perplexed over the fact that the foreigners never attempted to shoot at them, despite having guns. This, along with other events, leads one of the culprits, Kimo, to literally break his spears in half and refuse to kill anymore. After discovering the reason behind their passivity, he declares, “I will follow the carvings [of God]. I will walk His trail.” His break from the pack leads to him being ostracized and mocked by other men, yet Kimo stands strong and becomes the key to turning the entire village toward peace. (He’s also shown helping the women and children after his transformation, acts most uncommon for his people.)
Nate’s wife and the wives of the other men are supportive of their husbands’ eternal aims, despite knowing the risk they are taking in trying to befriend the tribe. Likewise, Nate’s sister, Rachel, devotes her life to the Waodani. When a group of men threaten to shoot a Waodani girl named Dayumae, Rachel protects her and raises her on her own. After an enemy tribe is stricken with polio, she tends to the ailing without a moment’s hesitation.
Dayumae continually reaches out to her brother, the stubborn Mincayani, despite the fact that he refuses to believe she is alive. (When they were separated as children, he stayed with the tribe while she went to live with the “foreigners” outside the jungle. And since the Waodani believe foreigners eat everyone they meet, he can’t understand how she could have survived.) During a heated scene, Mincayani spares a pregnant woman’s life seemingly to “let the baby live.” A father lovingly does what’s best for his daughter by sending her away before he dies. A couple of Waodani women tell members of an enemy tribe, “Even if you spear us, we will not spear you.”
Despite the missionaries’ kindness, a Waodani man lies about being attacked by them in order to explain why he was alone in the jungle with another man’s sister. That’s not positive. Neither is what happens as a result. But the fact that one little lie is shown to lead to the death of five innocent men is a powerful lesson.
At the heart of the film is a confrontation of spiritual worldviews. The Waodani incorporate the spirit world into their everyday existence by doing such things as placing dead babies in the river so their spirits “won’t wander.” After the beachfront massacre, the killers reason that they “have angered the spirits.” When Mincayani is reunited with his grown-up sister, he insists she is a spirit. The Waodani men explain Kimo’s change in demeanor by remarking, “Every day a spirit is changing him. … Look at his face.” Mincayani adds that Kimo has “fallen under a spell.” Jokes are made about various animal spirits.
The Waodani equate death and the afterlife to “jumping the great boa.” They believe that the goal in life is to become strong enough to do this—which, in their minds, justifies frequent spearings. (Those who are weak and fail this “jump” end up as termites.)
In opposition to this is the Christian belief system that’s explained more through selfless actions than persuasive words. When language is used, it’s the Waodani’s. For instance, God (known as “Waengongi”) is referred to as having “marked His trail with carvings” (the Bible). Jesus is described as someone “who was speared, but He didn’t spear back.” The biblical directives to love unconditionally and to not kill are acted out on several occasions. Angels briefly reveal themselves to the Waodani.
In an effort not to titillate and still infuse realism into the story, filmmakers chose to clothe the Waodani men (who are played by Panamanians) in loincloths that cover their privates but leave legs, torsos and backsides exposed. Women wear skirts (of a sort) and grassy, crisscrossed tops that cover most of their breasts. A young girl’s developing breasts are fully exposed. Naked children play in the water, though the evening light obscures most of their nudity. A couple of the missionaries strip down to their boxers when meeting the Waodani in order to appear more like them. It’s not quite documentary-style tribal nudity in “all of its natural glory,” but it’s not “comfortable” viewing, either, even by Hollywood’s typical standards of onscreen—PG-13—modesty.
A Waodani girl reveals she’s pregnant by one of the tribesman. A young, in-love couple expresses a bit of physical affection. An incredulous woman grabs Steve’s waistband and looks down his shorts to make sure he’s a boy.
The ultra-violent Waodani give the camera lots of occasions to watch spearings and hackings. But it should be noted that the camera cuts away from every point of impact. (That doesn’t mean there’s no blood, though.)
Early on, a little boy ends up with a spear in the chest, as do countless men. One Waodani is discovered with multiple, bloody impalements. Another gets pierced several times. Yet another breaks off the shaft of a spear after getting struck through the shoulder. Tribal men and women slice away at each other with machetes. One warrior even murders a crying baby with his knife (offscreen). The camera zooms in on the blood dripping from a spear after Mincayani kills a jaguar.
The scene in which the missionaries are murdered is especially intense, as the majority of it is played out in slow motion. (Short clips of the event are later replayed.) A still-alive and moving Nate lies with a spear in his chest as blood stains his shirt and he watches his friends being slaughtered one by one. We twice see dead bodies in the river.
Elsewhere, Ecuadorians threaten to shoot a young Waodani girl and fire several shots while chasing a Waodani man. A wife tells her husband that if he dies she’ll strangle their daughter and bury her with him. Mincayani roughly grabs his sister’s face. A wild boar and a couple of monkeys are killed. A boa constrictor encircles a young girl and pulls her under the water.
Through the years, Steve Saint has received dozens of offers to make a movie about his father’s death. Yet most would-be filmmakers fell into three categories: Some wanted those associated with the events to cater to their personal vision (which often included twisting the story slightly); others didn’t have the moviemaking experience or credentials; and still others simply lacked the financial backing to follow through and do the story justice.
Enter the combination of director Jim Hanon and producers Mart Green and Bill Ewing. They brought experience, talent, heart, resources and a commitment to telling the story accurately—from the Waodani point of view. Saint told Plugged In Online that early on he was convinced “that none of these people had any interest in making a name for themselves by making this movie or that it was primarily a financial consideration. That impressed me.”
Saint did inform them, though, that before they could proceed they had to personally ask the Waodani. They did. And at first the answer was “No!” It only changed after it was explained to the tribe how desperately America needed to hear their history. Saddened by verbal details about recent North American killings (they were told about such tragedies as Columbine High School), they gave their blessing to the project, and in so doing—in a twist only God could pull off—became missionaries to us.
The result? While not shying away from depicting the near-nakedness of the tribe or the violent acts they routinely engaged in, Green, Hanon and Ewing effectively relay the myriad of godly, life-changing messages contained in this gut-wrenching story. Forgiveness. Healing. Selflessness. Family. Love. Honor. Bravery. Kindness. The list goes on, yet maybe no message stands out as much as redemption.
The Gospel is clearly presented, stated not in Christianese—or even English—but via the beautiful and unique terminology of the Waodani. That accomplishes two things. It helps allay criticism from skeptics who believe Jesus and movies should be mutually exclusive; and it demonstrates the complete relevance of God’s universally applicable Good News. As Saint says, “It’s free from a lot of the churchiness and expressions we use. They aren’t as sophisticated, so it comes across as more palatable.”
The martyrdom of Nate, Jim, Roger, Pete and Ed a half-century ago has inspired thousands if not millions of Christians. It has also brought countless others to their knees to accept Jesus as their personal Savior. In 1956, Time magazine, among many other magazines and newspapers, covered the story. And the tragic yet truly providential account of five of God’s greatest modern men of valor caught the attention of the world. I hope and pray that this big-screen addendum will have even more impact.