Tuesday, November 06, 2007

End of the Spear

When I was little I had a number of Spire Christian comics. I remember several of them, true-life stories of suffering or heroism in the face of great danger and classics of evangelical inspiration: God's Smuggler was perhaps my favorite, an account of "Brother Andrew"'s exploits taking bibles across the Iron Curtain; The Hiding Place described Corrie Ten Boom's activities hiding European Jews during the Holocaust; The Cross and the Switchblade, about David Wilkerson's experiences on the streets of New York; In the Presence of Mine Enemies depicted Howard Rutledge's experience as prisoner of war in Vietnam's "Hanoi Hilton." Each was vivid and exciting; I read them over and over. Evangelical Christianity confronted Communism, Nazism, and even contemporary Capitalism, and in each case performed miracles by changing stubborn hearts and minds.

Through Gates of Splendor coverAnd then there was Through Gates of Splendor. This tale was much more traditional, and if it weren't for the key role played by a little yellow aeroplane, it could have come straight out of the nineteenth century. For this was sacrifice and redemption at the colonial frontier: a hitherto uncontacted tribe, renowned for its savagery, massacres a group of protestant missionaries; in time, however, and with the perseverance of the murdered men's relatives who continue in the field, the killers are both forgiven and saved.

The aptly named Nate Saint and his companions become martyrs, witnesses whose deaths are no longer in vain. And the Waodani tribe, deep in Amazonian Ecuador, are effectively desubalternized.

End of the Spear posterEnd of the Spear tells this story with verve and remarkable technical facility. The jungle cinematography is luscious and accomplished, especially the numerous aerial shots during the first half hour, dedicated to following Saint's role as missionary pilot. The film also shows awareness that a simple conversion narrative is no longer sufficient justification for such disruption of native cultures, so it presents the motivation for Western incursion in terms of reducing Waodani self-harm. Violence internal to the group, we are told, was so endemic that "more than half of all the Waodani died from the spears of other Waodani." In a reverse of, well, of the entire history of colonial contact in the Americas, here the indigenous face extinction precisely because they have not so far been subjected to Western hegemony. The state of nature they live in is unsustainable. And so they have to be persuaded to put their old ways behind them by means of an act of cultural translation, whereby Christian doctrine is posed in the language of native mythology: "Waengongi doesn't want anyone to kill. . . . Waengongi marked his trail with carvings. . . . Waengongi has a Son: He was speared but he didn't apear back. " This is transculturation at work.

Indeed, in a neat coda that runs the risk of being patronizing but just falls short, we see clips from the same director's documentary feature, Beyond the Gates of Splendor, in which Saint's son recounts the estrangement of Western practices (drive-throughs, moving walkways, supermarkets, credit cards) as seen through the eyes of a Waodani tribesman.

So what remains intact and untouched by the film's fascination with transculturation is not then so much the West per se, but its vision of the 1950s. This is the brief moment before contact in which refreshment came from hand-made cordials in glass bottles, in which healthy young men could dance chastely with their wives and girlfriends somewhere in the middle of the Amazon rainforest, in which fathers lovingly crafted toy aeroplanes for their adoring sons. Far then from the notion of a mutual redemption, in which the Waodani learn from the indefatigable missionaries who in turn gain a new family and community among the now civilized savages, the film is laced with a profound nostalgia for the brief years between wartime hardship and contemporary overabundance.

To put this another way, and in the terms of the movie's opening line, there's a certain wistfulness for a time when the world really did seem to be one of "irreconcilable differences." For all the desubalternization and the dream of hegemonization, neither are really shown or developed in great detail. The story's drama depends upon a fundamental clash between the West and its other, not upon the homogenization that reduces the other to mere subordinate (however comically critical) of Western excesses. No wonder the camera lingers so lovingly on forest, native, and missionary alike in this brief moment of bliss that can be sustained only during the first reel. There's an awareness that hegemony doesn't fill a lack; it creates one.

End of the Spear still
YouTube Link: movie trailer. (NB there is lots of footage on YouTube about this movie, including much information about how it was made.)

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