Ready for Their Closeup

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A scene from End of the Spear

By now it is a given in the movie industry that it’s possible to prosper at the box office if you can capture the evangelical ticket-buyer. But there are different ways to go about it. The Passion of the Christ, for instance, was marketed to evangelical leaders and had an overarching message—an unflinching focus on Christ’s Atonement—that spoke to the center of evangelical belief. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe the Christian symbolism was much more subtle, but the movie adapted a beloved work by one of Evangelicalism’s most revered interpreters, C. S. Lewis, and was authorized by his stepson.

End of the Spear, the story about the martyrdom of five missionaries in Ecuador 50 years ago and its long-term repercussions, which scored the country's eighth-highest box office gross at cinemas ($4.7 million) last weekend, represents a third model. Like the other films, it has benefited from a full-court-press marketing effort enlisting evangelical opinion-makers (the press kit includes a literal A-Z list of endorsers) outreach to churches, and a campaign to facilitate the buying of blocks of seats by believers. But whereas the Passion and the Lion spoke directly or indirectly to the New Testament story of Christ, End of the Spear speaks most explicitly to the evangelical movement’s own history and recent heroes.

Although Christians have engaged in missionary work at least since the travels of the apostle Paul, the group now known as Evangelicals really only took it up after thousands of young men came back from World War II with a new understanding that they could personally reach and affect the wider world. The effort had been puttering along for more than a decade when a party of five missionaries were slaughtered in Ecuador by members of an Amazonian tribe called the Waodani in 1956.

The killings might well have fed the missionary impulse by itself. “It brought [modern day] martyrdom alive,” says Scott Moreau, a professor of missiology at Wheaton College. “It made it real.” But, in fact, two accelerants came into play. The first magnifier was a favorable story in LIFE magazine about the deaths with photos by a well-known war photographer, Cornell Capa. (The killings were also covered by TIME (You may note that in the archive article this tribe is referred to as Aucas). At that point, says Moreau, evangelicalism, which had only recently begun to separate from a more hard-edged fundamentalism, was still laboring under a near-pariah status dating to the public relations disaster of the Scopes trial decades earlier. This began to change with the public emergence of Billy Graham; and Moreau says that the missionary movement gained a similar "push" following the Ecuadoran deaths and the article's description of the victims "in positive light, as people who were dedicated to a cause and were not portrayed as idiots.” The article was an early keystone moment in Evangelicalism's return from the cold.

The second had to do with the martyrdom’s sequel. In a breathtaking gesture, several of the dead men’s widows befriended and lived among the Waodani, and the tribe eventually converted to Christianity. One of the wives, Elisabeth Elliot, wrote about it eloquently in “Through Gates of Splendor, ” which became a Christian classic. In combination, says Jonathan Bonk, director of the Overseas Ministries Study Center, the event, the event, coverage and aftermath “absolutely galvanized” a generation of young evangelicals. LIFE continued to revisit the story for years.

Nor has the events' memory ever totally abated.In recent years, Steve Saint, the son of one of the slain missionaries who took up his father’s calling and worked among the Waodani, has made vastly successful appearances at Christian concerts, megachurches and conferences with Mincaye, the Waodani (now a dentist) who killed his father. Melinda Perry, who attends a conservative Presbyterian church in Nashville, saw the duo with her 12-year-old daughter at a concert by gospel artist Steven Curtis Chapman.

Perry is indicative of the story’s ongoing power and the current film’s success in tapping it. The former executive administrator, now a full-time mother, first read “Through Gates of Splendor” in her early 20s in the 1980s, a quarter-century after the action it described. She doesn’t remember how she got hold of it, but does recall that it was already “dog-eared” by the time she received it. “I was looking for heroes,” she says, “And I was inspired that somebody cared so much about their faith that they would put it all on the line for that.” Last week, Perry attended End of the Spear on its opening weekend. She had received her tickets as a gift from a friend who bought a block of 20 back in December by signing up at the film’s website. Perry found the film moving. “We see the horror of martyrdom and the victimization of people, but also the redemption” that followed, she says. “The idea that the five young couples, and then the [widows] could bring their children to such a dangerous place, is very counter-cultural in a society where we’re into guarding our kids from everything. It’s quite remarkable.”

Afterward seven of her group repaired to a Starbucks to discuss their reaction. Some thought that it was too subtle in driving home the Gospel message, but Perry says “I think there’s a coming generation” of evangelical teens “who are in a discovery process and want to discover [Christian] things woven through stories of people’s lives and authentic endeavors” rather than necessarily having them spelled out.

Merely by hitting the top ten, the film has made a point. But unlike The Passion or Narnia, it may remain a modest success that encourages evangelicals in their ever-expanding missionary efforts without necessarily attracting non-believers into the fold, or for that matter, into the theaters. Perry notes that her local newspaper panned the film (reviews in major papers tended toward the unimpressed). Did she think it would play beyond the evangelical community? “I hate to say it,” she says, “but it might not appeal so much to a wider audience. One of the people at Starbucks was a high school teacher, and when we asked what his students would think of it, he said they would have to have a little more background.” But for those with the proper background, a so-so film may yet act as a cultural amplifier and a sign of pride.