Some of the critics' comments were right on. The Latino actors, including Louie Leonardo, who plays Mincayani, didn't look much like Indians. The score was occasionally over the top. The movie didn't provide any context for the Waodani Indians' warfare.
The Christian theme was central to the story, so I don't blame End of the Spear for that. It generally unfolded with a light touch, with almost no mentions of Jesus Christ or Christian dogma. It became heavy-handed only a couple of times:
This is one of the most self-serving statements by a Christian ever. Throughout history, Christians have rarely hesitated to eliminate their enemies. This must be the first case of someone's saying, "I can't kill a non-Christian because I'm worried about his immortal soul."
Other than these few problems, End of the Spear was pretty good. The story, acting, and cinematography were all decent. You'd hardly know this was a low-budget independent film.
The Waodani were portrayed as reasonably complex human beings, not all-out savages. When they first see a plane, they call it a "giant wooden bee," but they're quick to accept a ride in it. They're focused on finding a missing girl, not trembling in terror. They attack the missionaries because one Indian falsely accuses the white men of murder, not because they're inherently violent.
One big flaw
Although I enjoyed the movie itself, it has a huge flaw that renders it unpersuasive as a piece of Native history. Namely, what was the nature of the Waodani? Were they really as warlike, as needful of salvation, as End of the Spear portrayed them?
Clearly, the filmmakers would like us to think so. Since I don't know the historical record, they may even be right. But the evidence in the movie is all over the map. It's so contradictory and unreliable that you don't know whether it's true or not.
Consider this litany of events:
Although we may not like it, one and perhaps both attacks are motivated by the universal desire for revenge. This falls well short of proof that the Waodani are inherently and unnaturally violent. We Americans have done the same thing before (e.g., Pearl Harbor, 9/11), so the Waodani are evidently no more violent than we are.
This final comment hints at the complexities End of the Spear ignores. The Waodani knew the Ecuadoreans from earlier contacts, despite the movie's half-hearted pretense of ignorance. Like many tribes before them, the Waodani were under intense pressure from outside forces. Like many tribes, it's not surprising that they resorted to violence to defend their way of life.
Similarly, the missionaries knew the Waodani--again despite the movie's pretense of ignorance. They knew or should've known the external pressures the Waodani faced. Rather than "helping" them by converting them to Christianity and thus eliminating their violent impulses, they could've helped them by opposing the oil companies' depredations and thus eliminating their need for violence.
Faux happy ending
So End of the Spear doesn't give an accurate picture of what happened before the events of the movie. It also doesn't give an accurate picture of what happened afterward. According to the movie, the Saints and their Waodani charges became one big happy family. The movie implies all the Waodani fared equally well.
Not quite. Here's one summary of the Saints' efforts to "missionize" the Huaorani (Waodani):
A lot of her life was spent learning, and contributing to our linguistic understanding of, the Huaorani language. Her informant in learning the language was a young Huaorani woman named Dayuma. Between them they began missionary work, reaching many of the Huaorani around Dayuma's home. They are still today more responsible than any other two people for missionizing the Huaorani.
In the late 1960s the oil company, Texaco, approached the Ecuadorian government hoping for permission to drill for oil on Huaorani land. Saint and Dayuma became a key part of the following massive displacement of hundreds of Huaorani. Before then most had remained on their ancestral lands, uncontacted, and living the same hunting/gathering lifestyle that hadn't changed in millennia. What is known about this lifestyle is that the Huaorani cultivated almost no crops or plants and relied on hunting for their meat and fish. They were experts in, and had a symbiotic relationship with, the rainforest. That relationship transcended into the spiritual. Shamanism was practiced, which included the use of naturally occurring hallucinogens. Animistic ritual and polygamy also characterized traditional Huaorani beliefs. They believed in a symbolic relationship between their environment and themselves. The forest would always provide enough that they didn't have to grow food or keep animals.
The missionaries and the Ecuadorian government agreed to relocate as many Huaorani as possible away from the drilling areas to the missions that had been established in the previous ten years. Hundreds were relocated, while others fled to even more remote parts of the jungle. Accounts of the relocated Huaoranis' experiences differ. At one extreme, some have written of this event as "ethnocide." Others have claimed that it saved the Huaorani from genocide at the hands of the oil companies. An unquestionable outcome is that many had their life and culture changed forever, while others chose (and in some cases were never presented a choice) to stay deep in the forest and live the way they'd only ever known.
The visitor can see this polarization today in Ecuador. Eventually, many missionized Huaorani moved to so-called oil frontier towns, particularly Coca. Spanish is now their first language; drug abuse is high.
(Waddington, R. The Huaorani. The Peoples of The World Foundation. Retrieved March 7, 2007, from The Peoples of The World Foundation.)
Now the Waodani are living lives of substance abuse, squalor, and despair. But at least they're God-fearing Christians. Their physical lives are ruined but their spiritual lives are saved. Say hallelujah!
For what End of the Spear presents, which is the only fair way to rate it, I give it a 7.5 of 10. For what it doesn't present, I give it a zero. Whether intentionally or not, this well-made movie is a paean to Euro-American colonization. It ignores and excuses the destruction of indigenous peoples and cultures.