“Can peace really be acquired without changing the human heart?” asks the narrator of this well-crafted Christian drama. The film’s answer, of course, is that only Christ can accomplish such a miracle, but director Jim Hanon (Beyond the Gates of Splendor documentary) shows that redemption can make for a pretty good adventure tale.
Fifty years ago, in the Ecuadorian rainforest, five Christian missionaries were speared to death on the banks of the Ewenguno River. The assailants were the Waodani, primitive hunters who were known as one of the fiercest people on Earth. Constant homicide was the tribe’s lifestyle (or death style, as it were), as is depicted in chilling scenes (though eerily bloodless thanks to the PG-13 rating) throughout the movie.
By the 1950s, members of the tribe were killing each another in such numbers that they were headed for extinction, and the missionaries resolved to save them. After air-dropping gifts for three months, they set up camp in a clearing on the river bank so the skittish Waodani could get used to their presence. Though they had rifles, the missionaries decided they would not use them. “We can’t shoot the Waodani,” pilot Nate Saint (Chad Allen, TV’s Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman) assures his worried son Steve (Chase Ellison, Mysterious Skin). “They’re not ready for heaven. We are.”
Using photos that were taken shortly before the men’s death,Life magazine did a famous spread on the “martyrdom,” prompting a resurgence of American missionary zeal. With dramatic rearrangement of the actual chronology of events, Spear tells the aftermath of the slaughter and how the tribe eventually embraced Christianity and gave up its murderous ways. Today the Waodani are thriving.
There are those who claim that the Christian angle is downplayed in Spear. Don’t believe them. Evangelism is the obvious, albeit soft-pedaled, purpose of the movie. The movie’s main virtue is its fascinating re-creation of the pre-Christian Waodani culture, and I enjoyed that aspect immensely.
Roughly $12 million went into Spear, and it shows. The cinematography is stunning, as are the historic details in set decoration and costumes. All the actors do a fine job, though the main Waodani warriors, Mincayani (Louie Leonardo, Dead Dogs Lie) and Kimo (Jack Guzman, Power Rangers Wild Force), resemble hunky Spaniards more than small-statured Waodani. Christine Souza (Pretty Dead Girl), as the Waodani woman who bridges the gap between her tribe and the outside world, merited more screen time. But at least she was given a leading role, which is more recognition than Spear gives the female missionaries — even though they were the ones who actually accomplished the long-term peaceful contact with the Waodani.
Don’t leave before the credits, where a clip with the real Mincayani and missionary Steve Saint provides a memorable ending. Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence.
— reviewed by Marcianne Miller