The story is familiar to many Christians. Five young missionaries felt called to bring Jesus to the Waodani Tribe in remote Equador. The Waodani were brutal killers who lived and died by the spear and whose very existence seemed defined by the endless violence that forever had one aggrieved party killing another. By the time these missionaries felt called to befriend the Waodani, the tribe was on the verge of killing itself out of existence. The endeavor was high risk. Few people had ever made contact with the Waodani and lived to tell about it. But these young men used a small airplane to make initial contact, deliver small gifts, and establish a relationship.

"He is no fool," one of the missionaries wrote, "who gives up that which he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose." One day they landed the plane and attempted to make direct contact with the Waodani. They were never heard from again. Their bodies were discovered days later. They'd been speared to death. It was international news at the time.

Then the story got interesting. Rather than run away with their children, two of the missionaries' widows went into the jungle with their children to befriend the Waodani. For years they lived among the tribe, eventually seeing God transform the once-violent people into fellow pilgrims.

"End of the Spear" tells this story from the perspective of a young Waodani involved in killing the missionaries. Mincayani (Mincaye in real life) is raised in the kill-or-be-killed Waodani culture and attacks the missionaries along with fellow tribe members because of a misunderstanding. They believe the missionaries are threatening them. Thinking that the story was over after the spearing, Mincayani is forced to confront a bizarre reality when two of the men's wives move into the village.

It is an extraordinary story. Unfortunately, the movie largely fails to capture the emotional power of it. Mincayani's formative story, in which his sister is lost and family members are killed, seems stiff. Nuance and artistic subtlety give way to shots of a boa constrictor winding its way through a tree or a panther padding through the forest. Little emotional connection is made to the tribe. Characters seem two-dimensional.

The young missionaries' story is better, though hardly riveting. I found myself rooting for the film because I wanted the emotional connection and impact. I wanted to enter the lives and worlds and, most importantly, the souls of these missionaries, to find out what made them do such daring things for God. It never came.

God didn't show up much either. Jesus' name is mentioned only briefly and in passing. God is generically referenced on numerous occasions. It is almost as if the filmmakers were trying to make a concerted effort to make the film more approachable to non-Christian audiences and thought the best way to do that would be to omit Jesus' name. That may be smart marketing but it makes for bad storytelling. One cannot make a movie about missionaries willing to risk their lives for Christ without a whole lot of Jesus. Perhaps more significantly, how can one explain why two young widows would enter the barbaric Waodani tribe shortly after their husbands murders absent the very presence of Jesus in their lives?

A far better telling of this story is the documentary made by the same people who produced "End of the Spear." "Beyond the Gates of Splendor" is a powerful retelling of the same story. Background on the missionaries is given, their widows and children are interviewed. And the real Mincaye is shown reconciling with the son of one of the martyred missionaries. Perhaps by simply recounting the intense drama of the true story the documentary succeeds far better than the movie, which attempts to dramatize the same story.

The transformation of the Waodani through the sacrificial work of young men and women completely dedicated to Jesus Christ is an incredible story. No matter what one's faith is the story reveals the transformative power of God. Ultimately, however, that story is best told through documentary--or the words of Elisabeth Elliot, widow of one of the missionaries, who wrote a moving book about the story--than through "End of the Spear."

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