Fifty years ago, Steve Saint was a 5-year-old missionary kid in Ecuador whose father, Nate, was one of five men trying to reach out to the native Waodani tribe, who were known as merciless killers—of each other, and of outsiders.
On Jan. 6, 1956, Nate and his buddies—Jim Elliot, Pete Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian—made friendly contact with several of the Waodani. But two days later, six Waodani warriors speared all five men to death.
But that wasn't the end of the story. Steve's Aunt Rachel went on to live with the Waodani for years, leading many to Christ. Steve got to know them too, spending time with Rachel and Waodani, and even befriending Mincaye, the man who had killed his father. When Rachel died in 1994, Steve went to live with the Waodani for about 18 months, further deepening his relationships with a tribe once known as "naked savages."
It all adds up to an almost too-amazing-to-be-true story, and it's chronicled in the brand-new feature film, End of the Spear, opening nationwide on Friday. The movie is the brainchild of retail mogul Mart Green, who heard Steve Saint and Mincaye speak at a conference in 1999 and was so moved by the story that he decided to turn it into a film—two films, actually; the companion documentary, Beyond the Gates of Splendor, released last year. But first, Green had to get in touch with Saint to get the wheels in motion.
We recently talked to Saint about End of the Spear, for which he served as a consultant for the script.
Do you remember when Mart Green first contacted you?
Steve Saint: I remember the conversation because people have been wanting to make a movie out of this story since I was a boy, but Mart presented it differently. He asked if he could come to meet me, rather than flying me out to meet him. They came to my home, and Mart said, "I don't want to tell the five North American heroes' story. I want to tell this from the Waodani's perspective." I thought, That's really different. I said, "Well, you should ask them for permission, not me."
Then I knew I had him, because these six guys weren't going to go down to the jungles to ask the Waodani. So I figured, that's it. But they said, "Well, how do we do that?" I said I know where they are and I'll interpret for you, if you want to go. And they all cleared their calendars just like that. I thought, Wow, these guys are pretty serious if they're willing to go down to the jungles to do this.
I realized that they're not motivated by a desire for publicity or to make a quick buck, but that they really did care about this story. I began to think that God must have motivated Mart Green to want to do this.
So they went down to Ecuador, and you took them into the jungle. Mart told me that the Waodani initially said no. But when the subject of Columbine High School came up, they changed their minds.
Saint: When we met with the Waodani, I asked them, "These people want to make a video of our mutual story, of our history. How do you see that?" And the people, especially Mincaye, said, "No, we say we don't see it well."
[After some discussion], I said, "You know how you used to live, with all the hating and killing. The foreigners live that way too." And the Waodani looked at me like, "Oh come on, we know the foreigners don't live that way." So I told them what happened at Columbine, because this was just after that. They couldn't imagine that foreigners would get angry and kill each other for no reason. They were appalled.
Mincaye said, "That's how we used to live, killing people for no good reason." And then he said, "I say yes. You tell them to tell how we used live, but then you tell them to tell the story of how we live now, so that maybe seeing how we have learned to live well, maybe they too will learn to live well."
Your new book is also called End of the Spear. Tell me about that.
Saint: When they started this project, they asked me if I would tell them the whole story, from 1955 to today. They wanted to know everything.
Bill Ewing, the producer, said this story is too big for one movie, so he tried to talk Mart into doing two movies. He suggested doing a documentary and a feature film, both packaged together so they feed on each other and support each other. They made the documentary first, Beyond the Gates of Splendor. And now the feature film.
The book has come during the process of making the movie. The book is really long, and I knew they would have to edit it down for the movie. So they took the pieces that they thought were more compelling and it tied together better.
Many of us know this story from reading Elisabeth Elliot's book, Through Gates of Splendor. What are some of the new things that weren't in Elisabeth's book?
Saint:Through Gates of Splendor is really just Chapter 1 of the whole story. Chapter 2 is Aunt Rachel going to live with the Waodani, and then the Waodani doing exactly what my dad and his friends did in Chapter 1—reaching other Waodani who hadn't been contacted. Chapter 3 begins 11 years ago when Aunt Rachel died, and the Waodani asked me to live with them.
People who know Through Gates of Splendor—and other books that have been written about it—really do want to know the rest of the story. The meat of the story that impacted people was what happened in 1956, but the rest of the story is that we didn't just make a flash in the pan and leave. Aunt Rachel lived the rest of her life with them. And after she died, the Waodanis insisted that we go on having relationship.
Why does the movie feature a fictional character named Mincayani? I understand he's a composite of several people, including Mincaye.
Saint: The vast majority of Mincayani is Mincaye. But when I saw some of the things they were doing with the Mincayani character, I didn't want Mincaye to be hurt. There was no way I could explain to him, "This is mostly you, but there are some things they're going to attribute to you that aren't you, just like there's some things that they attribute to Steve that really are my sister."
The filmmakers told me there's only a certain number of characters you can introduce; if they introduce too many, you can't keep them straight and the story loses its appeal. So they explained that they had to make composites of some events and of some people. I understood, but I said, "I don't want Mincaye to think we're making up things about him; he doesn't understand make believe." So we decided to change his name.
I said, "How about if we call him Mincayani, because Mincaye is the individual and '-ani' means 'group.'" They said sure, that's great. Now, Mincaye knows he's not Mincayani, but the first time he saw the movie, he leaned over and said, "That one is like me." I said, "Yep, that one's like you. And that little boy, that's like me." I think that was the first time he really began to understand make believe.
I see some parallels between your role on this film and Douglas Gresham's role with the Narnia movie, where he served as a consultant and even had veto power over the script.
Saint: Yes. In fact, I was given more say than I think was reasonable, now knowing how complex it is to make a movie. I was representing the interests of the Waodani and five families up here [in the States], plus a huge Christian community that feels that this is their story. So I asked them for veto power over truthfulness and sensitivity, and they said yes. They've allowed me to have lots of input.
My objective was when North American people come out of the movie, I want them to perceive the film's story to be the real story. On the other hand, when the Waodani came out, I wanted them not to feel demeaned. And I think it has accomplished both of those.
At the end of the movie, Mincayani's character begs you to spear him to avenge your father's death. Did that really happen with Mincaye?
Saint: No. But I didn't mind that scene so much as the fact that the movie then ended without telling you what happens next. When I first saw it, I was stunned at the end, thinking people are going to leave the theater, and they won't understand that I really love Mincaye and Mincaye really loves me. It was like they told the whole joke and left out the punchline.
But then when the end credits started to roll, and they started showing scenes of Mincaye and me today, I felt this almost explosive relief from the audience, because everyone was wondering the same thing: Did Steve and Mincaye ever become friends, or did they become enemies? What happens? So, I was satisfied. You do find out that Mincaye and Steve do, in fact, become more than just reconciled.
What's that reconciliation look like today?
Saint: You should have seen Mincaye last night, watching a video in our living room. Our sons James and Shaun and their wives and kids were here. All the kids were on the couch with Mincaye, who had one of the littlest ones on his lap. The rest of them were just hanging all over him, watching the video. And Mincaye was having more fun just being pummeled by the kids than he was watching the video. I thought, You know, there is no way that they can show in this movie how much we really have become family.
My dad and the other men had just wanted to befriend the Waodani, but when they were killed, I was devastated. I thought, Well, it didn't work. But Aunt Rachel said, "Let's not judge that too quickly." It reminds me of the part in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe after Aslan is killed. Susan and Lucy are totally despondent. They think, like I thought, that the world is done, everything is dark, everything that was good has turned bad. They can't see how could any good come from this—until all of a sudden Aslan comes back to life. It's the same in this movie, when little Stevie tells Aunt Rachel, "It didn't work. God doesn't care. My Dad is gone. There's no hope." But she says, "Let's not judge that too quickly."
Like Narnia, this is a redemptive story of when an innocent, willing victim is killed in the traitor's stead, death begins working backwards. When I saw that in the middle of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, I almost stood up and said, "That's it! It's the same message!" Narnia is about vertical reconciliation, and End of the Spear is horizontal reconciliation. But both stories show what can happen when the Deeper Magic, when the greater mystery is revealed—God giving his own Son so that we can be reconciled to him. End of the Spear shows what can happen when people act in the image of God toward their fellow man.
For more information on End of the Spear or the story of the Ecuadorian martyrs, click here.
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