- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

There are multiple incarnations of Steve Saint in the independent feature “End of the Spear,” which recalls the calamity that befell his parents and several of their associates in 1956. Steve was 5 at the time. Marj and Nathaniel Saint had three young children and ran a missionary outpost in Ecuador.

The young Steve Saint is portrayed by juvenile actor Chase Ellison. His adult character is portrayed by Chad Allen, finessing a father-son dual role. He returns in the later stages of the film after appearing as the ill-fated Nate Saint in early sequences.

In addition, there is the hidden presence of Steve Saint himself in a yellow Piper Cub, a replica of the plane his father flew as a bush pilot for an interdenominational group called Mission Aviation Fellowship.

An indispensable consultant on the production, Mr. Saint also served as its one and only stunt pilot, re-enacting the kind of jungle flights that once were his father’s responsibility. These took place in Panama rather than Ecuador because director Jim Hanon and his colleagues needed better roads and supply facilities than the original setting could guarantee.

“I always thought my dad would teach me to fly,” he recalls during a phone call from New York City. “That was one of the hardest things to accept about his death and one of the great disillusionments of my life. So you can imagine how gratifying it was to get to do all the flying in this movie. If that yellow plane is moving at all, it’s me at the controls — tucked out of camera range if it’s a scene with Chad Allen in the cockpit.”

An aviator and semiretired businessman in his middle 50s, Mr. Saint divides his time among Ecuador, a home in Central Florida and travel associated with speaking and fundraising engagements. He and his wife have three grown children.

His two sons like to design and build planes. The builder, Jesse, is also in Ecuador, supervising a project in which members of the indigenous Waodani tribe construct custom-made private planes.

Steve Saint’s work force includes grandchildren of some of the tribesmen who were young and savage when Nate Saint and four colleagues were speared and hacked to death after spending several months patiently trying to orchestrate an amicable contact with the still elusive and lethal Waodani.

The killings made Steve Saint a national figure of sorrow and solicitude for a time. Life magazine photojournalist Cornell Capa reported on the fatalities and the immediate aftermath in a 10-page feature published in January 1956 — now reprinted in its original format as a promotional supplement for “End of the Spear.”

Pictorially impressive and frequently stirring, “Spear” makes more persuasive points about cultural gulfs and cycles of violence than Steven Spielberg’s “Munich.” Born and raised in Ecuador, Steve Saint didn’t begin to familiarize himself with the United States until he entered college.

While growing up, he remained in Ecuador with his mother, his aunt Rachel and his two siblings. Waodani tribesmen began coming in from the cold, so to speak, in the wake of the killings, which proved a cathartic last gasp of resistance to modern societal influences. By the end of the 1950s, Rachel Saint felt it was safe for her young nephew to dwell in the village she was supervising as a kind of transit point between modern and primitive societies.

The Waodani community included men who had participated in the 1956 slaughter. “Although the friendly contact that eluded my father and his friends had become a reality,” Mr. Saint observes, “there was still a possible hazard. By the traditional tribal reckoning, it would be my right and my obligation, really, once I grew up, to kill the people who had killed my father. I didn’t pose much of a threat at the age of 8, but the smart thing, from the old point of view, would have been to kill me before I became a serious threat.”

Fortunately, Mr. Saint observes, tribal sentiments had advanced beyond that point.

He clarifies a number of aspects that are neglected in the screenplay for “End of the Spear.” The movie portrays violence and retribution as pervasive among the Waodani and their rivals. According to Mr. Saint, only the Waodani remained holdouts against agents of the Ecuadorian government or missionary organizations by the mid-1950s. They also killed a number of Shell Oil employees who had been sent to survey locations for drilling sites. Their deaths put severe economic pressure on the government.

“I can document about two dozen deaths of Shell personnel,” Mr. Saint says. “It had become more and more difficult to get anybody to enter and explore the territory. I don’t know how many Waodani had been killed in retaliation or maybe self-defense. The estimated population of the entire tribe at that time was about 500. Now it’s up to 2,100.

“Although my father and his friends were certainly devout Christians and people of the Book, one of their principal motivations was to establish contact with the tribe before it became extinct — or driven so far back into the jungle that no one would know what became of them.”

Mr. Saint says he can’t think of a single friend among the tribesmen whose father died of natural causes. One anthropologist, he notes, estimated the homicide rate within the Waodani at 60 percent. The oldest male he can recall from when he was a boy “was probably in his early 30s.”

When his aunt died in 1994, Mr. Saint and his family returned to Ecuador for her burial. Importuned by leaders of the tribe, he agreed to remain in the community and continue her ministry in a manner of speaking. In effect, he became an idea man and business agent for the Waodani tribe, intent on developing forms of manufacture that would allow the tribe to remain intact while producing marketable goods for outsiders.

There had been earlier filmmaking overtures, rejected for one reason or another by the widows and the tribe. Finally, it was decided to trust the group responsible for “End of the Spear.” The survivors of the 1956 clash were assured that events would be depicted from both the Waodani and missionary perspectives. The tribe also will share in the film’s profits, if any.

“The film people have been extremely desirous of getting it right,” Steve Saint attests. “I think they’ve told the story well and been especially sensitive to the tribe and its needs. I was skeptical until they demonstrated a willingness to approach the Waodani directly and make their case. It worked out, and I think a lot of people are going to be affected by the movie.”

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