In 1956, after more than three months of delivering gifts by airplane to a primitive Amazonian tribe of natives known as the Waodani, five American missionaries decided to finally make an effort to meet the tribe members face to face. Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Ed McCully, Roger Youderian, and Pete Fleming landed on Palm Beach, near Equador, one January day and waited for the Waodani to greet them. When the tribe members eventually arrived at the beach, instead of friendly handshakes all around and thanks for the gifts, the five missionaries promptly received spears through the chest.
Unbeknownst to the five men, the Waodani people, it seems, all grew up learning a singular rule of thumb: "Spear and live or be speared and die." Neither did the tribe members limit their hostility to foreigners; over the centuries, the Waodani had brought themselves to the point of extinction. Clearly these people had real anger management issues.
Most people, having lost fathers and husbands to such nasty circumstances, might be inclined to cut their losses, accept it all as a fait accompli, and find some solace in the hope that the end, when it came, was quick. The wives of Jim Elliot and Nate Saint, though, were clearly not made in the mold of most people, for they decided to pack their bags, travel to the Amazon, and move in permanently with the tribe. (Some women, clearly, even an Amazon native won't mess with.) Steve Saint, the son of one of the slain men, later moved his family from Florida to live with the same Waodani family that had killed his father.
Local actress Sylvia Jefferies, who you might have seen last Monday night if you're a watcher of NBC's sea-monster series Surface (she plays Mrs. Joiner), spent a month in the Republic of Panama a year ago filming a movie about the events. End of the Spear, directed by Jim Hanon, tells the story of the missionaries' deaths at the hands of the Waodani, and the remarkable true events that followed, from the perspective of Mincayani, one of the Waodani tribesman.
End of the Spear, a relatively small indie film produced by Every Tribe Entertainment and distributed by Jungle Films LLC, will have a limited national release this weekend. The story the film tells proved so captivating to director Hanon that he also filmed a concurrent documentary about the tribe's and the missionary families' intertwined fates while on location in Panama. Called Beyond the Gates of Splendor, the doc is narrated by director Hanon. It weaves together pictures, audio, interviews with the actual Waodani tribe members, and footage from the feature film to help explain the story of what happened on Palm Beach, on this, the event's 50th anniversary.
Last Friday night, Jefferies helped organize a screening of the documentary at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church on Folly Road in West Ashley, where she led a post-screening discussion of End of the Spear and the making of the two films.
Jefferies, who moved to New Orleans last spring to pursue her acting career, has been cooling her heels at her childhood home on James Island since Hurricane Katrina brought her back to Charleston in September, though it hasn't much affected her audition schedule. Jefferies herself plays the role of another of the missionaries' wives, Barbara Youderian.
"I can't imagine the kind of courage it must have taken for these two women, Elisabeth Elliot and Rachael Saint, to do what they did. It's incomprehensible to me. These people had murdered their loved ones in such a barbaric fashion, and then to make the decision not just to live with them but to leave behind civilized society for a life in the Amazon jungle ... it's just extraordinary."
The film's end, it's worth noting, is considerably less bloody than its beginning. A year after the women moved in with the tribe, violence among the members had dropped to a mere fraction of what it had been, and today the Waodani are among the most peaceable native tribes in the Amazon.
How'd the ladies do it? Who knows. Never underestimate the power of a woman with a fresh switch in her hand.