Saturday, January 7, 2006

The sudden deaths of five American men who risked all to preach the Gospel to one of the most violent tribes in the Amazon River basin made headlines around the world.

Fifty years ago today, the men were speared to death on a sandy beach in an eastern Ecuadorean jungle by warriors from a Stone Age tribe known as the Auca.

Americans were glued to their radios to hear reports of Ecuadorean and U.S. Army search teams heading down the Ewenguno River into Auca territory. Graphic photos of the men’s bodies in the river and those of the anguished widows gathered around a kitchen table were immortalized in Life magazine.

The deaths of the five men and subsequent — and successful — efforts by the relatives of the slain missionaries to convert the killers to Christianity is dramatized in a new film. “End of the Spear,” a 111-minute feature shot in the jungles of Panama, premieres in 1,200 theaters nationwide Jan. 20.

“We anticipate a whole new generation of young people being impacted by this story,” said Bill Hane, executive director of Bearing Fruit Communications, the Oklahoma City-based nonprofit organization that funded the film.

“This was one of the greatest missionary stories of all times, and a lot of Christians will remember it,” said Greg Clifford of Every Tribe Entertainment, the production company. “But this is an incredible story of forgiveness and reconciliation for non-churchgoing people, too.”

Casting agent Mark Fincannon said Thursday he hopes “End of the Spear” will “raise the bar of Christian filming,” along with other theologically significant movies such as “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

What little theology there is in the movie is lightly applied along with footage of lush jungle and aerial views of the rain forest. The $25 million result is a paean to nonviolence and forgiveness of one’s enemies.

The story of the five men dying in remote Ecuador is already well-known among evangelical Christians, thanks to a spate of books written by the wives or children of the slain men.

Elisabeth Elliot’s “Shadow of the Almighty” and “Through Gates of Splendor” about her slain husband, Jim Elliot, are prime examples. A quote from her husband’s journal published in “Through Gates of Splendor” re-energized the American missionary movement. “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose,” Mr. Elliot wrote.

The film tells the story of the killings from the viewpoint of the Auca tribesmen and from that of Steve Saint, who was 5 when his father, missionary Nate Saint, died.

Eventually, Steve Saint meets Mincaye, who took part in the killings. After the Americans’ deaths, several of their wives went to live with the tribe, renamed Waodani. The wives bring the tribespeople medicine and begin the process of teaching them not to exact revenge.

At the film’s climax, Mincaye, who has converted to Christianity, reveals to a grown-up Steve Saint that he was one of Nate Saint’s killers. Although Mincaye invites the missionary’s son to kill him in revenge, Steve Saint refuses to do so.

A documentary, “Beyond the Gates of Splendor,” narrated by Steve Saint, which has been released by Fox Home Entertainment, also tells the missionaries’ story, along with footage from 1956 newsreels.

Both films say the Waodani were rated by anthropologists as the world’s most violent society, with a 60 percent homicide rate due mostly to intertribal feuds. Close to extinction 50 years ago, 25 percent to 40 percent of the tribe is now Christian and, for the first time, their elders are living long enough to be grandparents.

Because of the difficulties of filming in a portion of Ecuador where there was no electricity nor lodging for about 100 cast members and film crew, Every Tribe Entertainment shot “End of the Spear” in Panama, with Embera tribespeople playing the parts of the Waodani.

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