By and large, films about faith are tricky things. Making a film about a preacher or a missionary has more inherent potential controversy than one about a shoe salesman, or even a serial killer, since most people can get together on disliking the serial killer, whereas matters of faith have been known to start wars. Religiously themed films fall into several categories. There are some that are genuinely well made, a concerted effort not to force the issue but simply let the story reflect it. Films in this category include Chariots of Fire, The Apostle, Breaking the Waves, Babette’s Feast, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, however, are the movies that barely qualify as movies, cheaply assembled and poorly acted straight-to-video titles that can’t see past their need to proselytize and actually cobble together a halfway-decent narrative. For examples of this, see the Left Behind series, the Omega Code series, and most of the programming on TBN.
And then you’ve got the third category: a weird, sad, gray area of bad films involving religion that aren’t bad because of their subject matter, they’re just bad, period. For example, Stigmata isn’t a bad movie because of its Catholicism; it’s a bad movie, and it involves the church. Get it? Because the last thing I want is for people to send in angry letters or mail me a basket of poison muffins because I hated the movie about the missionaries. My problem isn’t with the subject matter, or that the filmmakers wanted to make a movie portraying the missionaries in question in a positive light; no, my problem is with how ineptly the story was handled. From top to bottom, it’s amateur hour: bad writing, bad lighting, bad acting, bad directing, bad anything you can possibly think of. Bad. And not bad in an Undiscovered way, as in irredeemably awful. End of the Spear is more lamentably bad, the kind of clunky, mind-numbing film that could have been so much better, but instead will be screened at summer camps across Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Inspired by true events, End of the Spear stars Chad Allen, who apparently “peaked” with his role on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” as Nate Saint, one of a group of missionaries living in 1950s Ecuador with their wives, hoping to make contact with the local Waodani tribe to teach them the gospel. This isn’t made clear initially, though, so I spent the first part of the film wondering if Nate and friends were involved with Greenpeace, or just really motivated, or what. The word “missionaries” isn’t even used until the second half of the film, as if first-time director Jim Hanon is trying to dupe viewers into thinking that End of the Spear is a crappy secular movie, and not a crappy religious one. Nate’s young son, Steve, is the focus of the film, and narrates the story as a flashback. (When Steve grows up, he’s also played by Allen, a weak casting choice that must have been made to keep production costs at a minimum.) But when Hanon finally does tip his hand, it’s with a coldness that seems out of place with legitimate evangelism. Young Steve is worried about Nate being attacked by the Waodani, so he asks his dad if Nate would ever use a gun and kill a Waodani if he was in danger. I fully expected Nate to say something along the lines of, “Well, no, I wouldn’t, because killing someone is wrong,” before referencing either the Ten Commandments or the Sermon on the Mount. But Nate’s answer is far less scriptural, and far more disturbing: He tells Steve he can’t kill the Waodani because “they’re not ready for Heaven. We are.” What, so if the Waodani had already been converted, Nate would have no trouble pulling the trigger? It’s a clumsy, uncompassionate answer, and any viewers who’ve given Hanon the benefit of the doubt up to this point will doubtlessly be turned off by Nate’s attitude.
When not following the missionary families, Hanon tries and fails to tell the story of the Waodani, notably Mincayani (Louie Leonardo), the angriest of them all. The Waodani have been driven nearly to extinction by endless cycles of revenge killings, though the word “kill” is used far less often than the much clunkier verb form of “spear,” as in “Let’s spear him,” “He’s going to spear me,” “We should all stop spearing each other,” etc. This leads to the inevitable tale of the creator’s son, who was speared but didn’t spear back. The whole thing’s about as subtle as a freight train. As for actually understanding or caring about the complexities of the inter- and intratribe relationships, forget it. Hanon shoots the whole thing in a dark blur, with no thought or nuance that would help distinguish one local from another. I only remember Mincayani because narrator Steve mentions him every five minutes or so, and because the Waodani dialogue is subtitled, giving viewers the chance to read things like this, my personal favorite, uttered by an old tribesman about to die: “I must jump the Great Boa.” There’s no real explanation given for what this means. In fact, the Waodani myths and religion are left undiscussed, a terrible oversight in a film about faith. How does Hanon expect us to take Nate’s Christianity seriously when he doesn’t give it a counterpoint?
Nate and four other men are killed by the Waodani in a communication mishap, and it’s up to Steve to come to grips with his father’s murder as Mincayani works toward a kind of redemption borne out of his guilt and sorrow. Or at least, that’s what would happen if Hanon, who co-wrote the film with Bill Ewing and Bart Gavigan, had bothered to produce a workable screenplay. As it is, the story plods through a subplot about a polio outbreak that should be backstory, and grown-up Steve shows up again at the end to make hasty amends with Mincayani. It’s almost stunning that Hanon bungles such a by-the-numbers tale, but he does.
More than anything, End of the Spear is a letdown. It seems there’s no end to the political and religious divide in the country right now, and Pat Robertson seems to getting more airtime than any 10,000 mentally balanced people of faith. There’s never been a better time for a Christian filmmaker who cares about their faith to be good at what they do, and with the dismal End of the Spear, Hanon proves he isn’t that man.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.End of the Spear / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 13, 2006 | Comments ()