The story of the five missionaries — Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully, and Pete Fleming — who were killed by the Ecuadorian Indian tribe they were trying to reach in the 1950s, whose families later reached out to those same Indians, is one of the most beloved and inspiring in recent Christian history. I first encountered the story in the late 70s while in college. I read Elisabeth Elliot’s Through Gates of Splendor, then her publication of her late husband’s journals and Shadow of the Almighty. Some years later I discovered Rachel Saint’s The Dayuma Story, and later still Unfolding Destinies by Olive Fleming Liefeld. Last year, at the fiftieth anniversary of the story, Steve Saint’s book End of the Spear was published as well as a film based on the book.
I enjoyed the book very much. I enjoyed reading Steve’s perspective and finding out what the Waodani (formerly known by the outside world’s designation of them as Aucas, meaning, if I remember correctly, “savages”) that I had come to know and love through the other books were up to now.
I heard much criticism of the film, which I’ll discuss in greater detail. I wanted to see it for myself rather than taking the word of either side. I just rented it and saw it for the first time this weekend. I had seen the documentary based on the book, Beyond the Gates of Splendor, and would highly recommend it. It explained more than the film did and had wonderful interviews with the five widows and several Waodani.
Here are my thoughts:
- I thought the film itself was well-done. I don’t know what it is, but there is generally something lacking in Christian films — perhaps because they are generally low-budget or lacking in professional expertise or something. As we watched this, my oldest son said, “It’s good to see a Christian film with good production values.”
- One of the biggest controversies when the film came out was the casting of Chad Allen, a homosexual activist, as Nate Saint. I do think this, and the resulting negative controversy, was unfortunate. Nothing against Chad Allen personally — I thought he did an excellent job. But it was dismaying that someone so opposed to Nate Saint’s beliefs and lifestyle would portray such a revered character. On the other hand, looking through the cast list at the imdb entry for the film, I would guess that probably few, if any, shared the beliefs or values of the people they portrayed. I hope that their contact with the story and the Christians involved planted seeds that will find “good ground.” And, although I agreed with the stand and understand the zeal for righteousness involved, I was dismayed at the way many Christians handled their criticism, forgetting to “hate the sin but love the sinner.”
- One of the other major criticisms by Christians was the lack of clarity of the gospel in the film. By contrast, several secular reviewers decried and scoffed at the gospel presentation. Though I wish it would have been made clearer for those who were unfamiliar with the truth of the gospel (especially the fact of faith, not just not killing and living well), I was glad to find there was more gospel there than what I had heard others say was there. I would say it was recognizable by people who know it, both in the few phrases dealing with it and the way the lives of those who embraced it changed, but those who don’t know the gospel might just attribute it to turning over a new leaf.
- I don’t think I would have understood a lot of what was going on in some parts if I hadn’t already been familiar with the books, but I understand the filmmakers dilemma in trying to decide what to include without making it too long. I hope the film spurred an interest in reading any of the books about the story.
- There has been criticism of missionaries in general for evangelizing “Stone Age” people groups. One thing interesting about the documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor was an interview with two anthropologists who studied the Waodani. They said that they were on the verge of extinction because their only means of dealing with any conflict was spearing. The Waodani themselves acknowledged this saying something to the effect that when before Rachel Saint and Elisabeth Elliot came to them, they had almost been down to two. They weren’t literally down to two, but they recognised that they would be if something didn’t change. Why would anyone object to their being shown a better way and saving them from extinction? We go to great measures to save the spotted owl and such from extinction –why not a whole people group? I have read some absurd charges about missionaries “forcing” conversions or only helping those who convert, and that’s all they are: absurd charges.
- Another criticism I remember reading was that the film made Jim Elliot look “buffoonish.” I wouldn’t use that word exactly, but I did think he was portrayed as somewhat silly. I’m just speculating here, but it’s almost as if the filmmakers wanted to take a character that was highly revered and esteemed and bring him down off the pedestal a little bit. On the other hand, Steve Saint did know him…..on the other hand, that was back when Steve was 8 or 9, so his perceptions of him then wouldn’t be what they would have as an adult. I don’t know. Jim was a very passionate man, and other people I know like that are as passionate — or maybe enthusiastic would be a better word here — in their humor as they are about everything else. Plus, those of us who feel we “know” him from his writings probably didn’t see a lot of his humor there, as his journal writings were serious ponderings of soul. So…I don’t know. I don’t have any idea whether the representation of Jim was accurate or not, but I was a bit disappointed in it.
- We watched the first 50 minutes wondering why there were no subtitles for the native dialogue, when my son fiddled with the controls and got them on. 🙄 Usually English translation subtitles of the foreign words just show up with having to adjust the setting — I’m not sure why this was different. But be forewarned that if you watch it and you’re not seeing subtitles for the native speech, you may need to adjust your settings. (I am saying “native” rather than Waodani because I read that the language used was actually that of another tribe who were also “extras” in the film, but I don’t remember that tribe’s name.)
- I had already learned this in the book, so I knew it was coming, but I was dismayed that the big dramatic scene between Steve Saint and Mincayani near the end was not something that really happened. Well, I am not dismayed that it didn’t happen, but I am dismayed that it was invented and inserted when it didn’t happen. I understand it was meant to symbolize the struggle Steve went through in coming to terms with the loss of his dad. But that’s one of the things I hate about making films out of books.
- As I read several secular reviews of the movie, I was saddened and sickened by the picking apart and criticising of the story by those who knew nothing about it, as if it were a fictional film.
- I’ve read of several Christians who feel that Christians don’t need to be making these kinds of films. I don’t know….I think we’re living in an increasingly visual age. Personally, I’m a book person — you get more of the real story and more depth from the book. A film is condensed and compressed, and most times a film just doesn’t accurately portray the story. But….this is a film-watching generation, and I do think there is a place for well-made films of this type. I think they will always be between a rock and hard place, though, between the criticism of Christians and the scoffing of the secular reviewers.
So…there you have some of my thoughts about the film. I’d highly recommend the books, especially Through Gates of Splendor and End of the Spear, and the documentary, Beyond the Gates of Splendor. I wouldn’t say “don’t” watch End of the Spear, but I just think you’d get a fuller picture in the books and documentary.
Edited to add: I got to thinking I might better forewarn people who might think of watching this film that there is what my pastor calls “National Geographic-style nudity” in the film. They do have the actors wearing more clothes than they did in real life when the events of the story were unfolding, and everyone’s essentials are covered up, but there are many bare-bottom scenes. Just thought some would like to know that ahead of time.
Also, I wanted to mention that there is a bit of a different perspective as to “why” the Waodani attacked the missionaries between Elisabeth Elliot’s book, Olive Fleming Liefeld’s book, and Steve Saint’s. I don’t see that as a conflict — there were probably many layers to the “why” of it, and probably more came to light over time as language skills and relationships improved. Steve said that he had been instructed early on not to ask about it, and the things that were shared with him only came to light in recent years.
Lastly, I wanted to mention that one of my favorite parts of the book and the documentary (just a little glimpse of this is shown during the credits of the film) is Mincaye’s impressions of life in America when he came to visit. (Mincaye is his real name; Mincayani is the character’s name in the film, who is based on Mincaye but is also a conglomeration of characters.)