Monday, January 30, 2006

End of the Spear- A Review and Assessment

To make a thorough assessment of the film End of the Spear, I believe it ought to be judged first on its merits as an artistic statement, and that its success or failure aesthetically in turn bears upon the film's ability to communicate its Christian message, and that issues raised by the "casting controversy" also bear upon the film's ultimate success in communicating its filmmakers' intended messages.

The Aesthetic Issue
The merit of the film cannot be determined by simply judging whether the movie presents a doctrinally correct point of view, or whether it is explicit in its presentation of the gospel. One must also ask, does the film have aesthetic integrity-- does it succeed in communicating the truths it intends to convey convincingly, using the special language of cinema? Does the film demonstrate excellence in terms of the artistry of the filmmakers in telling the story? Al Mohler's recent commentary on End of the Spear makes some pertinent points in this regard, noting that Christians ought to develop an intelligent, informed aesthetic response to popular art, along with disciplined "cultural discernment based upon Christian truth".

In recent years many Christian artists (IAM for example) are practicing their art in a more sophisticated way, attempting to create works that rise to the highest standards of aesthetic excellence, while at the same time, not compromising in the presentation of Christian truth. Many in the Christian audience are also developing this more cultured approach to enjoyment of art, learning to appreciate the aesthetic value of particular works without necessarily endorsing or condoning things in them contrary to the faith. Many have come to see that since art uses a different kind of language to communicate its points, the work of Christian artists does not necessarily have to be didactic or "preachy" in order to present truth in a way that is both God-honoring and effective. Christian art can be subtle.

Admittedly, there is danger here. Christians should not be so eager to be judged aesthetically excellent in today's marketplace that they begin to accommodate to the world's standards in the content of their creations. The landscape of popular art in American culture has long been dominated by a humanistic point of view, one that is often anti-religion and anti-Christian. Most modern movies do not have as their focus characters who are morally pure (from a Judeo-Christian point of view). Rather, the majority of characters are on a moral continuum from "colorful" to ethically challenged to pure evil, and movies today rarely provide clear moral lessons. Although the works of some of the artists in this landscape may be excellent aesthetically speaking, that does not mean that the messages being communicated are edifying.

Another unfortunate truth is that many, probably most, who see movies don't bring an appreciation for the craft and art of filmmaking with them. Popular films aren't necessarily great ones, but the public may be drawn to them because either they subjectively relate to the particular story, and/or the movie titillates their primal urges: fear, sex, love, adventure and excitement.

In a marketplace filled with work that has long ceased from celebrating what is good, ethical and true, and which increasingly appeals to the basest of human instincts, today's Christian artists face the challenge of making art that is pure in heart, but which is at the same time not afraid to tackle the "dirtiness" of real life and to name the sinful condition of man. Christian artists must gain the respect of critics by meeting standards of aesthetic excellence, not primarily so that it wins the world's awards, but so that it will do honor to the Christian messages it presents subtly or explicitly, and influence people towards Christ.

Whether or not one believes Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ is a quality film with an accurate gospel message, its financial success was in large part due to high turnout from the evangelical Christian community. This demonstrates that when a film is well-made and well-marketed, it can reach a large audience, even if it has very strong Christian content. There seems to be great spiritual yearning in America, and although that yearning is increasingly directed toward non-traditional expressions of spirituality, the Christian message still resonates for many. If Christians make movies of both substance and quality, they can direct spiritually hungry people towards Christ, who truly is the Answer.

It is encouraging then, to see the emergence of an independent film company like Every Tribe Entertainment that is Christian in worldview, and that has as its mission "to create quality entertainment for a broad audience that inspires hope through truth." Theirs is certainly a laudable goal, one which resonates with me personally, as a Christian communicator who writes, blogs, and creates music.

ETE's latest release, End of the Spear is the feature film that is the dramatic counterpart and follow-up to their documentary, Beyond the Gates of Splendor, which was also about these five missionaries and their wives. The new film, based on Steve Saint's memoir of the same title, is, like the documentary before it, written and directed by Jim Hanon.

The Chad Allen Controversy
Many in the blogosphere have become aware of the controversy over ETE's casting of actor Chad Allen (who in his private life is a noted homosexual activist) to play the starring role of Nat/Steve Saint in their new film. This has troubled many Christians but has also caused debate, since some have dismissed the casting issue as not that relevant to the value of the film. They think that other Christians are making more out of this than necessary.

So a second part of evaluating End of the Spear involves assessing the impact of the "Chad Allen controversy" upon the film's ultimate message. Is the real message of End of the Spear being overshadowed by this controversy?

Is the messenger the message, as some have suggested? In other words, is it proper for a non-Christian to carry forth the Christian message in a Christian-made film? Could this talented gay actor (best known for his television work), convincingly play the Christian missionary he was hired to play, and do justice to the portrayal? Was Chad Allen really the best man for the role, or did the producers witness a superior audition from Allen, ask him to take on the part and then, finding out he was homosexual, feel it was not right to go back on their choice? In an article for Christianity Today Christian Studio Explains Hiring of Gay Actor last week, the producers explain that they felt God orchestrated the choice of Allen for the role, so that despite hesitations over Allen's sexual orientation, they hired him anyway. It seems that their reasoning is that in playing the part of the famous Christian missionary, Mr. Allen could not help but be strongly impacted, and might turn his own life over to Christ. Perhaps they also thought that others in the gay community might see the film because of the casting of Allen, and be positively impacted towards Christ as well.

But some have suggested that rather than Chad Allen being impacted, he is really the one taking advantage of the platform afforded him by his starring role in the film, to promote his ideas about homosexuality.

Best Man for the Role?
Perhaps a case can be made that hiring the most talented actor one can get, whether or not he/she is a believer-- to either play a Christian character, or participate in the making of a film with a Christian message, lines up with the goal of creating a quality product that will achieve the aesthetic excellence necessary to communicate its message well. It would seem that hiring the best, most talented people would make accomplishing such a goal more feasible. One can think of some fine films with a Christian theme that have had as their stars gay or non-Christian actors (the actor who played Eric Lidell in the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, for example, was homosexual). And the producers of End of the Spear have stated that based on Allen's audition, they simply hired the best man for the job, despite some later hesitations when they found out about his sexual orientation. We will try to evaluate if their choice indeed was best, both in terms of the results in the film, and also, outside of the film. But first,

What makes a movie good, even great?

Is it when the story the movie tells is one that inspires and edifies? Is a movie worthy of accolades when its characters are morally virtuous, and when its message teaches life lessons to help us become more loving, more caring human beings?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then End of the Spear certainly had tremendous potential for turning out to be a great film.

The story that inspired End of the Spear is beautiful. It is the most well-known missionary exploit of this past century, wonderfully memorialized in the works Shadow of the Almighty, Through Gates of Splendor and a sequel, The Savage My Kinsman by Jim Elliot's widow, Elisabeth Elliot. Her popular books portrayed the missionary life as a noble calling, showing the strength and purity of devotion to God that made five young missionaries and their wives boldly dedicate their lives to reaching a remote people with the gospel message of Jesus Christ. They were certain that sharing this gospel message would save lives, even as their own lives had been saved and transformed by it. Communicating far beyond mere words, their demonstration of Christ-like love and forgiveness towards the Woadoni tribe still testifies to the transformative power of the gospel, a power that stopped hate and violence in its tracks and forever changed the lives of a once murderous people.

And yet, as filmmakers know, moviemaking is a complex art-- it is not enough to have an inspiring, true story worth telling. To make an excellent film, hundreds of crucial artistic choices need to be made well. Perhaps most fundamentally, the story must be adapted into a script that makes good choices about its elements. For example, selecting whose perspective to tell the story from; deciding which aspects of the story are most essential, and how to best emphasize them; employing artistic license when necessary, in the interest of effectively communicating in this visual medium. Of course, a good script should also have believable dialogue and adequate character exposition to help the audience understand the emotional, psychological and even spiritual forces that drive the behavior of the characters. It must be able to sustain interest from beginning to end, and help bring us to experience an emotional payoff by its conclusion.

If, in addition to beginning with an intelligent, well-written script, the producers manage to hire a skillful and visionary director, talented actors capable of meeting the demands of their roles, a gifted and experienced cinematographer, and many other gifted people, both on the technical and artistic fronts, the chances of their making a good film increase.

From this brief, admittedly outsider's perspective at what goes into making a movie, we see it is far from an easy endeavor. In fact, producing a film which manages to achieve and coordinate excellence in so many different areas, to become a powerful artistic statement, is something of a miracle.

My Review of the Film

The film's website provides the following synopsis of End of the Spear:

Mincayani (Louie Leonardo) is born into the most violent society ever documented by anthropologists, the Waodani in the eastern rainforest of Ecuador. As he grows he learns what every Waodani understands, he must spear and live or be speared and die. Mincayani's world changes when he and his family kill five missionaries, Nate Saint (Chad Allen), Jim Elliot (Sean McGowan), Ed McCully (Stephen Caudill), Pete Fleming (Matt Lutz) and Roger Youderian (Patrick Zeller). This incident propels Mincayani's family group down an extraordinary path that culminates in them not only departing from violence, but also caring for the enemy tribe they had once violently raided.

From the opening shots of two men kayaking down the river into the jungle, to shots of the Waodani in their native habitat, the exotic beauty of the jungle is captured beautifully by the film's cinematographer, Robert Driskell. End of the Spear does not lack visual beauty, and as mentioned earlier, the story it means to tell is one of genuine spiritual beauty. But where the film falls short is in its ability to convey the depth of spiritual conviction that inspired these missionaries and their wives to reach out to a violent tribe with the love of Christ.

Some of the adolescent playfulness the film portrays about these five men is surely accurate, after all, they were young-- only in their late twenties and early thirties. Yet, in the film one is struck by their casualness and naivete as the approach the Waodani, a tribe that they know is prone to killing everyone they meet. It is difficult to believe that the real missionaries are as superficial or as silly as they come across here. Why don't we ever see these men in fervent prayer before heading off to their encounters with a tribe of known killers?

The character of Nate Saint (Chad Allen) should have been the one to bring more three-dimensionality to the portrait of the missionaries, but the few scenes we have of Saint with his family, or with the other missionaries, are not enough to give a full-bodied picture of the man, one that would help the audience connect with him emotionally. As portrayed by Allen, Nate Saint seems a sweet, gentle man who loves his wife and young son deeply, and is determined to fulfill his mission. Yet the movie doesn't provide much insight into why he is so dedicated to that mission.

A Christian might have some understanding of what drives these folks, but the movie merely presents them in action, without giving the viewer enough to explain their motivations. I was reminded of the movie "Passion of the Christ", in that what the viewer brought to that film would likely "fill in the gaps" and color one's perceptions of it. In reading on-line reviews of End of the Spear, many "user-reviews" (written mostly by non-professional critics who apparently are Christians), write positively about the film and how much it moved them, but professional critics reviewing the film's effectiveness as story-telling story are generally negative.

I went into this movie as a highly sympathetic viewer, but left strangely unmoved by the film's portrayal of these moving real life incidents. Personally I have a hard time watching violence on screen and so the spearing of the men was jolting for me, and this scene is vividly and believably captured in the film. I was truly saddened by it. However, as all of the men, including Saint, felt like strangers to me, the scene isn't as nearly as emotionally affecting as it might have been.

It is apparent that the producers of this film have genuine respect for the Waodani, demonstrated in their decision to use many actual Waodani tribe members in the cast, to use the Waodani language in the film (with English subtitles), and by the care they have taken to accurately depict the details of Waodani life. Most importantly, the film chooses to tell much of the story from the Waodani perspective, presumably so that we can understand them better.

Unfortunately, the characterizations of the Waodani don't go very deep either, perhaps due to the limitation of using non-actors in many of these roles. And because so much time is spent with the Waodani, there isn't much time left over to develop deeper characterizations of any of the missionaries, including Saint.

Another unfortunate aspect of the film is its score, which telegraphs events and emotions ahead of time and has a certain "ooga booga" effect that works against the filmmakers' intention of not stereotyping the Waodani.

I thought that the role of Mincayani (Louis Leonardo) was perhaps the best-played in the film. Interestingly, this role is not based on a real person, but is a composite character based on an actual tribesman named Mincaye and several other tribesman. Mincayani's intensity of animosity towards the "foreigners" makes him a fierce leader among the Waodani. Leonardo's charismatic portrayal generates interest and is believable. Nevertheless, the scene in which he shows remorse immediately after spearing to death the missionary Nate Saint is somewhat confusing. Is he troubled because in his dying moments, Nate Saint seems have mumbled to him a Waodoni phrase: "I want to be your sincere friend?" But soon afterward, we see he is no longer remorseful.

The widow Elisabeth Eliot (Beth Bailey) and Nat Saint's sister Rachel (Sara Kathryn Bakker) coming to live with the Waodani is presented without enough exposition to make it believable. We see Dayumae (Christina Souza), a woman who had escaped death by fleeing the Waodanis and being taken in by the missionary women, becomes a "bridge" by which the widows are able to make contact with the tribe. But in the film all of this happens too easily and smoothly, and it seems to happen almost in a week's time. The film should have attempted to at least show how the women processed their grief and anger. In real life, the widows did not live with the Waodanis until two years later.

Final Assessments
By not revealing enough the intense, intelligent faith in God that motivated these fine young men and women, the filmmakers unintentionally make these missionaries seem like unreal figures who are dangerously naive and lacking in common sense. They miss an opportunity to give people a more meaningful look into the heart of missions.

The film's climatic confrontation between Mincayani and Steve Saint, when Mincayani confesses to Steve that he was the one who speared his father to death, doesn't pack the emotional wallop that is its filmmakers clearly intended it to, for two reasons. One is that these two characters have barely interacted in the film before this moment; second, each of them is still quite a mystery. The film simply has not built up to this moment, and the anguish expressed in the scene by both actors feels forced.

Chad Allen's acting is good, but not transcendent enough to make up for the missing elements in the writing and direction. In the end, what makes End of the Spear less than effective is not Chad Allen's acting ability, or the controversy surrounding his casting, but the film's dramatic flaws and shortcomings.

Nevertheless in their choice of Allen as lead, the filmmakers seem to have undercut their message. The producers (including Steve Saint) sincerely believe that God orchestrated the series of events that led to their choice of Allen, and I respect their willingness to share about the process with those who have asked them about it. Nevertheless, it seems that in reaching out to Mr. Allen, the story has indeed shifted somewhat away from the film and over to Mr. Allen and his activities on behalf of homosexuals.

Allen has not thus far shown that being a part of this movie has changed his mind about homosexuality. On the other hand, it seems somehow that participating in this film has been a means for Mr. Allen to try to reconcile his notions of spirituality with his homosexual lifestyle.

As the credits roll during End of the Spear, scenes of the real Steve Saint and the real "Mincayani", from the documentary "Beyond the Gates of Splendor" are shown. I was surprised at how much more authentic, powerful and real these brief scenes felt than the drama we had just watched. Perhaps Every Tribe Entertainment's strength is the documentary rather than the dramatic feature.

See also my related posts End of the Spear-- The Story Behind the Story and End of the Spear: Is the Real Message of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint Being Overshadowed?

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