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Movie Review

When Christian missionaries were killed in 1956 in the Amazon jungles of Ecuador by the tribe they were trying to befriend, the incident caught the eye of the world. Newspapers, magazines and radio broadcasts turned their attention to the apparent tragedy that left behind five fatherless families. Among Christians, the story went on to impact entire generations, inspiring countless potential missionaries to place their lives at risk for the sake of the gospel.

Less publicized was the rest of the story, as it were, which 50 years later still embodies redemption, forgiveness and sacrificial love. Narrated by one of the missionary's sons, Steve Saint, Beyond the Gates of Splendor not only documents the harrowing events of that fateful January day, but also reveals the dramatic changes in the Waodani culture that came as a result of the missionaries' deaths. As a prelude to the big-screen drama End of the Spear, this DVD documentary uses interviews with both the missionary widows and those who killed their husbands to prove that the world once again needs to hear this story—the full story.


Positive Elements

Obviously, the willingness of the five missionaries to die for their faith—and to refuse to shoot at their attackers—looms large. Equally as heroic, however, were the actions of these missionaries' wives and relatives, who, according to one interviewee, "were in this thing just as much as the men were." Despite being hesitant to allow her husband to venture into Waodani territory, missionary wife Barbara Youderian says she realized, "I can't keep my husband home just because I have a fear." Another wife, Elisabeth Elliot, joins up with Steve's aunt, Rachel, in staying behind after the killings to forge a lasting relationship with the Waodani. Their efforts ultimately curb the imminent self-extinction of the tribe, as noted by anthropologists and Waodani alike. In fact, one older tribesman says his people "were almost down to two people. ... If [Rachel and Elisabeth] had not come, there would have been no one left."

Prior to their interaction with the missionaries, the Waodani had no method for resolving conflict, which led to numerous unnecessary deaths. Theirs was an individualistic society with no concept of acting for the good of the group. The consistent love—through action—of Rachel Saint and others helped effect change on this social setting, leading to a 90 percent reduction in the Waodani homicide rate in only a few years.

At the core of this transformation, this documentary shows, are the elements of forgiveness and redemption. Rachel, Elisabeth, Barbara and the other families continue to love the very people who murdered their husbands and brothers. Later, Steve follows suit and leaves his life in the United States to return to the Waodani with his entire family. His children end up calling their grandfather's killer, Mincaye, their own grandfather. Steve's sister is even baptized in the same water her father had been killed in—by two of the men who had killed him. "All I knew was that I really loved these two guys," she says.

Spiritual Content

Just as Rachel Saint and others helped effect the Waodani's social changes, they also influenced the spiritual culture, inviting the tribesmen to live in the peace, forgiveness, hope and love of Jesus Christ. Though they included a creator God called Waeumi, the Waodani's ancient spiritual beliefs were based around "jumping the great boa." The ultimate test in death that they spent their lives preparing for was to climb a trail upward and jump over the great snake. If they failed, they would fall back to the ground and become termites. Because of this, the Waodani believed life's purpose was to become as strong as possible—which, in their eyes, included (and somewhat excused) killing each other.

To convey the notion of God's Word, the Waodani are told that "if they followed His carving while they were alive, then they would find His house when they died." These "carvings" included the instruction to not kill. Dayumae, a native Waodani girl who was taken in by Rachel at an early age, comes back to teach her tribe the Bible on Sundays, which she says is God's day.

Prayer is mentioned repeatedly by several of the missionary wives and their families, including a missionary's mother who, upon hearing that her son is missing, says, "The Lord will hear the prayers being lifted up by people all around the country." One family member recounts Jim Elliot's Christian zeal, saying, "He's the kind of guy who never did anything halfway. If he's going to be spiritual, he's going to be as spiritual as he can be."

Sexual Content

To both neighboring tribes and Ecuadorians in general, the Waodani were known as Auca, meaning "naked savage." Indeed, the Waodani wore nothing more than a meager strip of cloth to hide their genitalia. And this documentary contains images of their "native nudity." More than once, we see pictures and footage including topless Waodani women. (On occasion, their breasts are blurred.) Both male and female rear nudity is prominent throughout. Naked children are shown playing.

Violent Content

Anthropologists Clayton and Carole Robarchek describe the Waodani as one of the most violent people in human history, and the stories told by several natives undergird this (along with the culture's 60 percent homicide rate). We hear of relatives speared, drowned, cut into pieces or hacked across the neck and face with machetes. A mother is said to have strangled her young daughter so she could be buried with the mother's dying husband (as was the custom). On a couple of occasions these murders are re-enacted, with one scene showing a man with a spear piercing his bloodied chest.

Clayton Robarchek speaks of the Waodani's "guts coming out." Gun-toting soldiers go on a rescue mission and fire a shot in the air. The search party leader recalls seeing Nate Saint's face bloodied and a spear through his head. We see repeated images of the missionaries' dead bodies face-down in the water (including a close-up). In a modern-day scene, a woman hits a man across the face. A couple of captured monkeys are shown burning in a fire.

Crude or Profane Language


Drug and Alcohol Content

A story is told about two missionaries goofing off during their college years and acting like drunken bums in public. A modern-day scene shows a young man smoking a cigarette, and a similar shot takes place in a bar.

Other Negative Elements

Mincaye's wife recounts her husband and Steve's son joking around and passing gas. Potentially nauseating for some, graphic images show a severe skin disease and a mangled hand.


Beyond the Gates of Splendor wasn't originally part of executive producer Mart Green's plan. When he first met Steve Saint and Mincaye in 1997, he was powerfully moved. He had known the story of missionaries Nate Saint, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Ed McCully and Pete Fleming most of his life. He'd read Elisabeth Elliot's book, Through Gates of Splendor, years before. But he'd never heard this redemptive story told from the Waodani point of view. So upon listening to Steve and Mincaye at a conference in Pennsylvania, his first thought was, Someday this will be made into a movie, but it won't be from the Americans' point of view. It will be what happened to the six guys who killed the five; it will be about how God's Word transformed their lives.

Fast-forward two years (to the day) and Green, who to that point had never even been to a theater, was in Steve's living room asking permission to make that very movie. After traveling to Ecuador to seek the Waodani's OK, too, Green and his team were set to make their big-screen feature film. Along the way, however, came thousands of hours of research, hundreds of hours of filming and three rejected scripts.

Some of those "extras" now make up this documentary, which takes an in-depth, factual look at the cultural transformations caused by the 1956 killings. And there are certainly several sociological lessons to be learned. As Clayton Robarchek says onscreen, "The Waodani, to a great extent, are very much like us. They are independent, autonomous, self-reliant, brave—all those values that Americans hold dear, the Waodani represent in the most extreme forms. ... There’s a cautionary tale: If you carry this constellation of American values to its ultimate extreme, what you get is Waodani."

But even greater are the spiritual lessons taught by this God-fashioned story. Despite the documentary leaning more toward the factual than the emotional, the themes of forgiveness, redemption, mercy and love all shine through with poignancy and timelessness. And it's not heavy-handed or preachy. "The world doesn't want to hear that kind of stuff, especially in the context of a 'Christian' film," says Green. "But I think when you tell the story just as it happened, it works. We didn't tell the Waodani not to say things. We weren't coaching them on what to say. We just said, 'Tell the story.'"

The result is a well-produced account that, though somewhat plodding through its first half-hour, finds in the heart of its story the kind of redemption only God can provide.

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