Now available on DVD and VHS is “Beyond the Gates of Splendor,” the beautifully told story of five American missionaries who were speared to death by tribesmen in Ecuador in 1956.
Audiences might be familiar with the story on account of Through Gates of Splendor, a book by Elisabeth Elliot, the wife of slain missionary Jim Elliot. The documentary, however, is really a masterful telling of how two cultures collided—and the role of forgiveness after the tragic collision.
Written and directed by Jim Hanon under the production of Bearing Fruit Communications, “Splendor” relies on interviews with the missionary families as well as Waodani tribespeople who participated in or remembered the attack.
The project also incorporates incredible home movies and photographs—even film footage the missionaries shot of their initial encounter with some of the Waodani just a day before they were killed.
Those who already know some of this fascinating story won’t be surprised to see Mincaye, a prominent member of the attacking tribe, play such a vital role in this documentary and the riveting story it tells.
In fact, the project opens with one of his statements: “We acted badly, badly, until they brought us God’s carvings now we walk His trail.”
The first section of the documentary focuses on the Waodani culture and its “spear and live, or be speared and die” ethic. Their culture was one of the most violent known to anthropologists, one of whom concluded that, in the past five generations, six out of 10 adult Waodani deaths were homicides.
The documentary might spend a bit too long making this point up front, but the message is clear: Violence was the norm.
About 15 minutes into the documentary, audiences begin meeting the missionaries—Jim Elliot, Nate Saint, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully and Pete Fleming—through home movies and, significantly, the words of their wives, each of whom is absorbing in her own right.
Elisabeth Elliot Gren, Marj Saint Van Der Puy, Barbara Youderian, Marilou McCully and Olive Fleming Liefeld share their memories with dignity, sadness, hope, awe and a dash of humor (emotions that Ronald Owen’s score manages to capture, by the way).
Steve Saint, son of Nate Saint, narrates the documentary and helps ground the unfolding story of forgiveness that the filmmakers have rightly incorporated. For the relationships that developed between cultures and people after the spearings are as important as the tragedy itself.
The documentary really begins to hit its stride about 30 minutes in, when the filmmakers develop the looming confrontation between the Waodani and the missionaries. The confrontation involves a very human Waodani backstory of family clans and a marriage; audiences will wince over how it all transpired.
But the missionaries’ deaths are hardly the end of the story, so despair does not take the day. The missionary families don’t seek vengeance; rather, they continue to seek contact. And make it. And forgive. And change a culture.
After watching “Beyond the Gates of Splendor,” I didn’t feel that the missionaries’ reactions and the forgiveness that occurred were unfathomable, and that’s the highest compliment I can pay everyone involved in the story itself as well as the filmmakers.
The story is so well told that, when it ends, I think you can grasp the kind of forgiveness—as remarkable as it is—that surrounds that beach in the Ecuadorian jungle.
And isn’t that the power of film being sought here? Not to walk away saying, “I could never do that,” but instead to leave thinking, “Yes, that world-changing power is possible for me, too.”
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent content and thematic elements. Reviewer’s Note: This is a review of the 96-minute version of the film. A 40-minute version is also available to ministries as part of a free screening kit. Click here for details.
Director: Jim Hanon
Writer: Jim Hanon
Cast: Steve Saint; Mincaye; Elisabeth Elliot Gren; Marj Saint Van Der Puy; Barbara Youderian; Marilou McCully; Olive Fleming Liefeld.
The movie’s official Web site is here.
Click here to order the movie from Amazon.com.