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Documentary explores ’56 slayings of missionaries to Ecuador

DALLAS (BP)–The Waodani Indians of Ecuador were killing six of every 10 of their tribesmen when American missionaries entered their isolated community in January 1956. Anthropologists say the tribe, identified then as the Aucas, had one of the most violent cultures ever documented and was headed toward extinction.

Missionary pilot Nate Saint had located the tribe in circling the Amazon Basin jungle. Wishing to establish contact, Saint hoped a slow, circular flying pattern would allow him to stabilize a long rope and basket dropped from the airplane down to the tribe. A difficult maneuver, it worked, and over 11 weeks in late 1955, Saint and fellow missionaries Jim Elliot, Peter Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian lowered gifts to the Waodani. When the Waodani returned the favor by sending a bird up in the basket, the missionaries sensed opportunity.

On Jan. 7, 1956, the five men left their young wives at base camp and landed their plane on a sandbar near the Waodani, making face-to-face contact for the first time.

The next day, the tribesmen speared them dead.

The killings made worldwide news at the time. Life magazine devoted a spread to the story on Jan. 30, 1956, and a 1957 book, “The Gates of Splendor,” brought the story to millions of readers from the Christian perspective of Elisabeth Elliot, who was widowed by the killings.

Almost 50 years later, the tale — with updated material chronicling the tribe’s radical change — has been retold in a 40-minute documentary, “Beyond the Gates of Splendor,” available free of charge to churches, schools and para-church organizations.

A full-length, 90-minute version of the documentary debuted on the big screen in a handful of cities this year and will be available in retail stores on DVD in September, said Randy Swanson, a spokesman for Every Tribe Entertainment (www.everytribe.com), the company that produced it.

The documentary precedes a full-length theatrical movie, “End of the Spear,” which is in final production and will debut in theaters in early 2006 near the 50th anniversary of the killings, Swanson said.

The documentary focuses on the missionaries and their families, the Waodani tribesmen and the unlikely story of courage and redemption when two of the missionaries’ widows and one of the missionaries’ sisters and — years later –— the son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren of Nate Saint settle among the tribe.

Described by its producer, Kevin McAfee, as a “pre-evangelism” tool, the documentary profiles the Waodani from the perspectives of two anthropologists who studied the tribe. The film also probes the backgrounds, motivations and dreams of the missionaries and their families before and after the killings through recovered 16 mm home movies, still photos and interviews with widows, family members and members of the search crew.

Two of the killers, Mincaye and Kimo, became Christians and are featured in the documentary via interviews with translators, who relate Mincaye’s humorous observations about American culture after Mincaye visited the United States in the late 1990s with Steve Saint, whose father Mincaye murdered.

The home movies help document several of the missionaries’ time together at Wheaton College, their courtships and a Christmas celebration just before the murders at the missionaries’ home base down river.

McAfee, a member of the Oklahoma City-area Council Road Baptist Church in Bethany, said during a Dallas screening that the film aims to give insights into the missionaries as they sought to reach the Waodani –- food for thought that perhaps can be discussed over coffee at Starbucks afterward, he said.

McAfee also is musical director of the film. His work ranges from dramatic orchestral sounds to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home, Alabama” during one of documentary’s lighter moments.

Beyond the Gates of Splendor received the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival and “Audience Favorite” at the Palm Beach Film Festival.

Mart Green, founder of Mardel, an Oklahoma City-based Christian retail chain, is founder and chief executive officer of Every Tribe Entertainment, which bills itself as “committed to telling significant stories on film in the highest quality possible.”

In producing its first full-length project, Every Tribe hired McAfee along with Bill Ewing, a former vice president at Columbia Tri-Star to be company president, and Jim Hanon, a Cannes Film Festival award-winner, as a writer and director.
Churches may order “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” by calling 1-800-695-9847 or by visiting the www.everytribe.com.

    About the Author

  • Jerry Pierce