Jim Hanon’s End of the Spear is a rare breed of reality-based fiction: It tells you it’s “based on a true story” and you may actually believe it. Except a Wikipedia cross-reference reveals a sad, Bushy endgame to this tale of Third World Christian charity that goes unmentioned in the film, at which point you begin to question its scope and purpose. When inter-clan hostilities were claiming the lives of Ecuador’s Waodanis, an Amazon people whose ancestral lands are today being threatened by the expansion of the area’s oil and logging industries, a group of selfless North American missionaries located the tribe with the hope of turning them away from killing. Except this meant evangelizing them. Not that the Waodanis knew that.
Unable to understand English, the Waodanis killed the missionaries and destroyed their “wooden bee” (a yellow plane they used to fly into the region) only to learn as Nate Saint (Chad Allen) uttered his dying words—something in the jungle people’s native language about being their pals—that maybe the white man hadn’t come to decimate them. (The actual language heard in the film is that of the Embera people of Panama who were cast as the film’s natives.) Righteous and forgiving, the women—whose goodness is unclear if it comes with a set of conditions—picked up where their husbands left off, marching into the region and assuring their children that the natives were not quite “ready for heaven” given that they hadn’t found God.
The film’s account of the tenuous language barrier that separates the missionaries and Waodanis is effectively nervy (given the size of the font used to translate the tribe’s tongue, people in the back pews won’t miss a thing), but he still looks down at the Waodanis as ooga-booga savages (the evangelists, on the other hand, are bathed in haloed, cinematographic light); only the tribe’s bloodlust—not its rationale—and zanier beliefs are of interest, namely the tradition of dying tribesmen wanting to be buried with their living, breathing children! (It’s unclear if the film’s smug condescension is just Hanon’s or if it was shared by the character’s real-life models—either way, he could learn a few things from Terrence Malick.)
No mention is made of how the evangelization of the Waodanis inadvertently allowed for oil scouting in the region and to what extent the missionaries today are trying to fend off these interests (or, more importantly, to what extent the help provided to the Waodani hinged on their embrace of Christianity and how much of their native identities and beliefs they were allowed to keep in the process), but that’s because this histrionic tribute to the missionary experience shuns nuance, favoring dogmatic action over serious moral discourse and social consequence. The Waodanis await a film that humanely considers their conversion as intensely as this film single-mindedly sanctifies those who came to the jungle to turn them away from killing, though I’m told Hanon’s documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor might have done just that.