It has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster – a smouldering volcano, a jungle battle, a bizarre cult and a self-styled messiah called Prophet Fred.
But the feud which has broken out between two villages in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu is all too real for the dozens of men in hospital with axe and spear wounds.
It has split one of the world’s last surviving cargo cults, one of the strangest legacies of the European colonisation of the South Seas. The John Frum movement first emerged in Vanuatu in the 1930s when the island was jointly ruled by Britain and France as the New Hebrides.
Rebelling against the aggressive proselytising of Presbyterian missionaries, dozens of villages on the island of Tanna put their faith in a mysterious outsider called John Frum.
They believed that he would drive out their colonial masters and re-establish their traditional ways. The cult was reinforced during the Second World War when the United States military arrived with huge amounts of “cargo” – tanks, ships, weapons, medicine and food.
Similar movements sprang up in Papua New Guinea and the Solomons, but most have slowly withered and died.
On Tanna, islanders became convinced that John Frum was an American. They have spent the last 60 years dressing up in home-made US army uniforms, drilling with bamboo rifles and parading beneath the Stars and Stripes in the hope of enticing a delivery of “cargo” again.
They have even hacked air strips out of the jungle and built crude wooden aircraft to tempt the speedy return of American munificence.
Two weeks ago, the normally peace-loving movement was shattered when a simmering feud with a rival village erupted into violence in this all but forgotten part of the Pacific.
In a bloody encounter with traditional weapons John Frum believers clashed with the members of a breakaway Christian sect led by a soft-spoken villager, Fred Nasse, who calls himself Prophet Fred. Half a dozen houses and a thatched Presbyterian church were burnt down during a battle which involved 400 islanders.
“They wanted to kill us and we wanted to kill them,” said Jack Yahlu, 27, a John Frum loyalist. “All the women and children ran away into the bush. We used knives and slingshots, axes and bows and arrows. One person had a broken arm, others were cut on the head.”
As 25 seriously injured villagers were taken to hospital on the other side of the island armed police were rushed from the capital, Port Vila. The two factions live in villages separated by 500 yards of dense jungle in the shadow of Mt Yasur, a volcano which regularly pours out clouds of sulphurous smoke. Until the recent violence villagers lived a near idyllic existence, tending gardens of sweet potato, sugar cane and bananas, fishing in dug-out canoes and hunting wild pigs and fruit bats in the forest.
Sitting in a palm frond shelter, the elders of Sulphur Bay village explained their loyalty to Prophet Fred, who said little but regularly dabbed at a weeping eye with a grubby towel. “In the past we believed in John Frum, but now we believe in Jesus,” said Alfred Wako, 49, who was injured in the leg in last month’s battle.
“The John Frum people don’t go to church and they don’t send their children to school. They believe in the old rituals. They are heathens.”
The villagers said Prophet Fred persuaded them to turn to Christianity by foreseeing a number of natural events.
He predicted that a lake at the foot of Mt Yasur would be swept into the sea. Five months later, in early 2000, the lake burst its banks and drained into the sea. Now all that remains is a black volcanic plain covered in grass where horsemen ride and cattle graze.
On Feb 15 each year villagers celebrate John Frum Day by marching in GI fatigues, complete with badges of rank and khaki forage caps.
The men paint red crosses on their backs – a legacy of the US army medics who impressed them six decades ago with free treatment.
Drawing the shape of a US flag in the volcanic sand with his finger, Chief Isaac said: “John predicted the Americans will help us. He will make the whites bring us cars, wharves, airports, everything. John will bring a better life.”
Kirk Huffman, an anthropologist who lived in Vanuatu for 17 years, said: “Nobody knows who John Frum was, though it is irrelevant whether he was a real person or a spirit. Movements like these were a way for traditional people to come to terms with colonialism and Christianity. Vanuatu’s culture would have been entirely squashed if it wasn’t for cults like John Frum.”
The two sides met this week in a reconciliation ceremony in which pigs and promises of goodwill were exchanged in front of chiefs from all over Tanna. But few on either side believe that the miniature war is over.