Based on the Peter Mathiessen novel, this is a superb cinematic treatment of the interpenetration of Civilization and the Amazonian Dreamtime. Two airplane drifters (Tom Berenger and Tom Waits) land their single engine aircraft at a remote outpost in the Amazon Basin (the entire film was shot on location in Amazonia). Berenger is an American Indian with a cynical attitude toward the plight of indigenous people who cling to the old ways. A ruthless local official persuades them to bomb a village deep in the rainforest to drive the Indians away from an area coveted for corporate exploitation. There are two missionary couples who are preparing to establish an evangelical mission among these same people, the Niaruna. John Lithgow and Darryl Hannah play the senior missionary couple, and Cathy Bates plays the wife of Aiden Quinn, the other missionary. On the bombing run, Berenger sees the face of a warrior shooting an arrow at the plane and the image haunts him. He flies back without dropping the bombs, gets drunk, and then returns to parachute into the circular village. He radios back to the outpost that he is “at play in the fields of the Lord.” He strips off his clothes and enters the village stark naked. The Niaruna think he is sent by the thunder god, “Kisu.”
Meanwhile, Lithgow leads his group up river tributaries to a mission abandoned by the Catholics, who were killed by the Indians. Lithgow and Hannah leave the other family to run their base operation, and bring the Indians to Christ. Their young son does well at making friends with Indian boys who are part of the people already there to welcome the missionaries. He strips off his trunks and joins in the ways of the Amazonian children. His mother is horrified at the un-Christian behavior of these people. Nakedness will be used repeatedly in this film as the common bond and the differentiating factor for these two groups of humans.
At the village, Berenger is having his body smeared with ritual paint. An elder says, “Without our paint how are we different from the animals?” The young son of the missionaries becomes ill with blackwater fever and both Christians and Indians stand vigil, and then lament when he dies. Lithgow makes an ass of himself and the Indians get it in their heads that he has caused the death of the innocent boy. When the missionaries teach the people about Jesus, they think he is talking about Kisu, and their reverence for Berenger is reinforced. Berenger happens upon a spot where Hannah is swimming nude in a pool. He approaches and kisses her. It later developments that the village suffers an epidemic of flu, spread by Berenger as a result of the kiss. Lithgow sees Berenger as his enemy, and refuses to help. Hannah says, “Our mission work is the best way to civilize the Indians.” The Catholic priest from the outpost arrives, though he is unwelcome, and convinces Quinn that he must get to the village and warn the Indians that white men are coming with bombs and they must flee into the forest. Gold has been found in the area. The padre observes, “Who knows what we may learn from our poor Indians if we’re not always teaching them?” Lithgow has already escaped downriver. Quinn makes it to the village, but things go badly – the bombs come at last – and he is killed by his guide.