Culture clash propels ‘Spear’

As his father prepares to lead a missionary expedition into the jungle, young Steve Saint (Chase Ellison) asks him, “If the Waodani attack, will you use your guns?”

The elder Saint replies, “Son, we can’t shoot the Waodani. They’re not ready for heaven. We are.”

So goes the true story of an ill-fated meeting (depending on one’s perspective) between an indigenous tribe of the Amazon basin and American missionaries hoping to spread the gospel in “End of the Spear.”

This generally engrossing Christian parable is the type of film that conservatives will overpraise and liberals will overcriticize.

Although the narrative spans several decades, the main action takes place in 1956, when Nate Saint (Chad Allen) and his family have relocated to the jungles of Ecuador to try and convert the Waodani people, whose “fierceness was legendary.” Cut off from all other civilizations, the Waodani’s intertribal warfare had nearly decimated their population.

Meanwhile, we see life from the Waodani’s viewpoint, as leader Mincayani (the commanding Louie Leonardo) spends his days hunting down enemies and avoiding the encroachment of the white man.

When the Saint party begins successfully making contact with the natives, the stage is set for a violent confrontation sparked by ideology and misunderstanding.

The film then details how Steve is indoctrinated into the world of the Waodani and develops a relationship with the man who speared his father. It also tracks the inevitable conversion of the tribe to a lifestyle where killing isn’t the preferred option.

The culture clash presented isn’t the only example of two opposing forces struggling for possession in director Jim Hanon’s “End of the Spear.” The filmmaking itself is a collage of mixed messages.

It’s earnest yet manipulative – sometimes subtle, sometimes overbearing.

It’s both a film that tries to humanize these tribesman as individuals – spending the majority of the movie focusing on their story and rendered in their own language – and a throwback to a 1950s mindset where the only way “primitives” can survive is if white Christians smother them with culture.

Visually, the project is beautifully captured by cinematographer Robert Driskell, who accentuates the greens, blues and yellows of the area. The recurring images of the tangerine-colored plane sweeping along the dense green flora are especially impressive. (The film was actually shot in Panama with the real Steve Saint doubling as stunt pilot.)

Yet there also are enough random cutaways to monkeys, snakes and spiders that it looks like an episode from last season’s “Survivor.”

Fortunately, the film’s lofty ambitions often trump its patchier aspects.

What helps immensely is the centerpiece sequence that is exceptional at relating the confusion and horror experienced by those involved. It would have been tempting for the filmmakers to “go Hollywood” here, but instead the scene unfolds in an almost clinical manner that heightens the intrinsic drama of the event.

Interestingly, Steve Saint’s story has already been told in the 2005 documentary “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” (also directed by Hanon). “Spear” actually inserts some clips from this little-seen doc over its end credits. These show an elderly Mincayani traveling with Saint to the U.S. and experiencing suburban comforts like supermarkets.

It’s a pretty amazing tale when one contemplates just how unique a relationship these two men share.

Funny how at first the “End of the Spear” title only seems to refer to the deadliest part of the weapon. Yet as the story unfolds, the implications shift. It starts to mean doing away with the need to use the weapon.

Just as the missionaries illustrate when attempting to explain Jesus to the Waodani: “He was speared. And he didn’t spear back.”