There's nothing quite like unambiguously positive depictions of Christian missionaries in movies to send audiences hurtling back to the less morally-conflicted, white-picket mindset of Eisenhower America. That was true of 2001's The Other Side Of Heaven, an almost perversely square and wholesome tribute to Mormon missionaries, and it's also true of the new End Of The Spear, Jim Hanon's adaptation of his 2005 documentary Beyond The Gates Of Splendor.
Both Hanon films document the tragic clash of cultures that erupted in 1956, when a group of five missionaries attempted to spread the gospel in the Ecuadorian jungle to a notoriously violent and genocidal tribe known as The Waodani. The distrustful Waodani mistook the white men for cannibals, and after a prolonged failure to communicate, slaughtered them. Years later, the son (Chad Allen) of one of the missionaries returns to the Ecuadorian jungle and the Waodani on a mission of forgiveness and redemption.
Hanon never questions the rightness of the missionaries' cause, but overt proselytizing thankfully takes a back seat to old-fashioned boyish adventure in an exotic land—Hanon seems more interested in exploiting his setting's lush green beauty than exploring the psyches of his bland Bible-thumpers. Ron Owen's oppressive score tugs relentlessly at the heartstrings, especially toward a climax that aspires to operatic transcendence, but instead lurches headfirst into Christian kitsch. In spite of End Of The Spear's fundamental conservatism, the missionaries' disastrous initial encounter with the Waodani ultimately teaches the progressive message that when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of foreign cultures, Bibles and superior technology are no substitute for a thorough understanding of their language and culture.