This afternoon Marlene and I went to see End of the Spear, the much-discussed movie based on the story of the five missionaries who were murdered by members of the Waodani tribe in 1956. If you are an evangelical, you already know the outline of the story, and you have probably read Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot. If you are over 45, you probably saw a film version of the story during a Sunday night service many years ago. I can remember watching a deeply moving stage version during my college years. The story has been told and retold and told again, in every conceivable medium over the last half-century. Because of the way the five young men died, and when it happened, and the way it happened, and the resultant coverage in Life Magazine, the story gripped America far beyond the evangelical subculture. As I saw the movie, I thought about others who died in recent years for the sake of the Great Commission. Their sacrifice cost just as much, but we’re living in different times. If five missionaries were somehow martyred in similar circumstances today, there would be a few news stories, some commentary, a few opinion pieces, and before long the 24-hour news cycle would find another shocking story to cover.
But things were different a half-century ago. Magazines mattered back then, and TV had not yet gained cultural superiority. The Internet was still in the distant future, and the brave missionaries took matters into their own hands, sending messages crackling through the air on an ancient radio from “Palm Beach” where they met the Waodani for the first time, and where they eventually died. I thought about all that, in fact I had been thinking about it for quite a few days, ever since reading the mixed reviews and following the controversy over Chad Allen, the openly gay actor who portrays missionary pilot Nate Saint.
The movie surprised me on several fronts. For one thing, it’s not really about the five missionaries. Those of us who have the read the books know how several of them met at Wheaton College, and we know about the long courtship of Jim and Elisabeth Elliot. There is nothing at all about their background in the movie. In fact, the movie doesn’t say much about their motivation for going to the Waodani in the first place. Evangelicals who know the story automatically fill in the details. But moviegoers without that background won’t be easily able to figure it out. And Jim and Elisabeth Elliott who loom large in most evangelical versions of the story play minor roles in the movie. I mention that not to object but to comment that End of the Spear tells the story from the viewpoint of Steve Saint, the young son of Nate Saint. When we see the five missionary couples at Shell Mera, they are laughing and having a great time together. The next time we see the five men, they have landed at “Palm Beach,” a sandbar near a Waodani village. Even then, only Nate’s character comes through clearly.
The movie is really about the Waodanis. In my mind, the two strongest characters were Mincayani, the warrior who killed Nate Saint, and Dayumae, the first Waodani convert, who goes back to the tribe with Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot after the five men are killed. On a deeper level, the movie is about revenge, death and forgiveness. In the climactic scene, a grown-up Steve Saint learns that Mincayani killed his father. Brandishing the spear inches from Mincayani’s chest, he declares, “No one took my father’s life. He gave it.” Thus killer and the son of the killed are reconciled.
The cinematography is often breathtaking. And the film effectively captures the clash of stone age and modern cultures. It hit me that if you bring an evangelical understanding to the film, you will fill in all the blanks and be deeply moved. But if you don’t understand why missionaries would risk everything to go to a tribe like the Waodanis, this film will not help in that regard. Unless I missed it, the name Jesus is never mentioned at all. There is a moving scene where Dayumae explains that God (using the Waodani word) had a Son who was speared so that we might live with him forever. In a few other places, there are some biblical allusions, but not very many. People expecting the equivalent of a Billy Graham film will be disappointed.
My wife and I were not disappointed even though we didn’t know what to expect. Seen on its own terms, End of the Spear is a son’s tribute to his father’s life and death, and a moving story about the power of forgiveness. As such, it is a powerfully Christian film in the best sense of the word. It’s not just a typical Christian film, and that’s not a bad thing.