Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Mon Jan 30, 2006 10:59 am 
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The critical roasting is deserved

There is not much material to write about here. The End of the Spear is a beautiful-looking but limited, timid, condescending and repetitious film without much specificity of plot or character development (though "based on fact"), about a group of Christian missionaries who take it upon themselves to save a certain Amazonian forest tribe in Ecuador, the Waodani, who back in the Fifties when the story begins are said to be wiping each other out in a cultural pattern of violence and revenge.

A group of five male Christian missionaries arrive in a small plane. They take one of the natives up in the plane for a ride but later the natives become suspicious and spear them all -- including their plane. Eventually relatives and associates of the missionaries come back, and partly because they are mainly women and therefore not worth killing, they are allowed to stay. The Christians cure the tribe of a bout of polio (brought by the whites?) and this seems to convince the Waodani that their visitors are benign -- and their Christian message valid. Years later, the son of the original leader of the group of Christian missionaries (Chad Allen, who plays both roles) is persuaded to come and live among the Waodani, where his father died many years before.

A jaw-dropping element of the story is that the five white men were are killed arrive with zero preparation for cultural interchange. Though some of them know a few words of the Waodani language, the natives "speak too fast" and they can't communicate with them. Anyone really fluent in the language has been left at home. Given this complete lack of readiness for dealing with a tribe they have every reason to consider bloodthirsty, it's not surprising that their visit rapidly ends in their violent deaths. The naivete and sweetness of the missionaries are touching but rather pathetic -- and, when you gradually become aware of the smug assumption that the natives have nothing to lose and everything to gain by being Christianized and Europeanized, the missionary mindset becomes more deeply annoying.

Direction, acting, editing, etc., are on a crude-to-mediocre level and the main native characters are played by Americans of Latino descent (Louie Leonardo, Jack Guzman, Christina Souza) who do not in the least physically resemble Amazonian Indians. They are athletic hunks, not natives, and their behavior is cutesy and schematic rather than ethnographic. Action is underlined by crudely bombastic background music. The Christians are watered down too; there is little of a Christian message and little in the way of missionary talk among the missionaries, though it is nonetheless clear that missionaries is what they are and Christianity is what they are out to promote.

Short on specific detail of event or character, the film is also singularly lacking in excitement and momentum. There is lush cinematography (the forest looks beautiful) and attractive-looking natives -- the latter perhaps a tad too clean: they look like they've just showered and had their hair done. But in the absence of a good script, it all falls flat. If you want a great Amazonian adventure story with larger implications about the invasions of the white man into the Amazonian forests (also based on fact, but wildly daring in its flights of fancy as well), get a copy of John Boorman's thrilling 1985 The Emerald Forest and watch it. If you come to The End of the Spear expecting a drama on that level you'll be profoundly disappointed; but if you want a vague feel-good Christian theme and don't mind condescension toward "natives," this is the movie for you.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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