Beyond the Gates of Splendor
Reviewed by: Chris Monroe
Better than Average
1 hr. 36 min.
Year of Release:
November 5, 2004 (limited)
““a story beyond tragedy… beyond reason… beyond imagination””
Noting the book “Through Gates of Splendor” which tells the story of five missionaries who sacrificed their lives in the jungles of Ecuador, this documentary film “Beyond the Gates of Splendor” takes us through that original journey to the events that followed half a century after. A thoroughly informed and accurate story, it has some limitations, but is well worth the watch.
The well-known facts about this story are that five men, Jim Elliot, Roger Youderian, Nate Saint, Pete Fleming, and Ed McCully ventured to Ecuador in the mid 1950’s as missionaries, along with their wives, to share the Gospel with those who were out of reach of it. In the process, these five men lost their lives and the event became worldwide news. But in this account, the events begin fittingly with the backstory of the native Ecuadorians, the Waorani people, and sets up the history, culture and violence of their lives that led to the horrific event of the missionaries’ deaths. Following that is the backstory of the five men—their days together in school, getting married, their decision to go to Ecuador—leading up to the day they died. The film then takes us beyond that tragedy to show the fruit of the labor of these men, specifically through Nate Saint’s son, Steve Saint.
Due to the nature of the event, there are references to murder and death. Some real footage from the 16mm camera the five missionaries had was retrieved and does include some images of these men after their decease. The talk about it all is more upsetting than what is shown, but even that is discreet and refrains from sharing too many details. The women of the Waorani tribe are also topless most of the time, so there is some nudity; but it is on par with what you would see in National Geographic.
One of the biggest criticisms I have of this documentary is the lack of emphasis on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. These filmmakers did excellent work setting up the colliding worldviews of the missionaries and the Waorani people, and do well building up the drama of the inevitable conflict between them. They also help round out our understanding of this story by involving a scientific viewpoint and interview anthropologists who understood the situation. However, when it came to exacting why these five men would attempt something so courageous, and just how the Waorani people’s lives changed so drastically, it seems the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ was glossed over.
The bottom line is that the reason the five men traveled to Ecuador in the first place and the reason these Indians had the ability to change their lives is all because of Jesus Christ. That is where the ultimate credit belongs. God is mentioned a few times, as well as His Word, but could have been explained more. For example, after the missionaries’ death and the Waorani people begin to hear God’s word, there is a drastic change with their problem with murder. It is stated that before, six out of ten deaths were homicides—but all of that changed. It is explained by the anthropologists that it helped that they were taught not to kill from God’s book. This is true, but a little too general.
This film covers a lot of ground, starting with the lives of the missionaries, all the way to a grandchild of one of the slain men, Nate Saint. Fortunately, one typically unsung hero in this story is also mentioned, Nate’s sister, Rachel Saint. It is often not emphasized enough, but Rachel is the one who had contact with the Waorani tribe long before these five men ever attempted to try and reach them. Rachel began first by ministering the Gospel to one woman, Dayuma, who in turn shared the Gospel with the rest of the Waorani people. Amazing, too, is the fact that several of the women who lost their husbands also visited the Waorani tribe—even meeting some of the very men who killed their spouses.
This story is quite miraculous and spiritually heavy hitting. Though the Gospel is not explicit, there is so much to glean from this astounding tale. The themes of forgiveness and sacrifice and how even the most violent people can change (by the power of God) are the kinds of things that make the lasting impressions in this production. And poignant lines depicting these missionaries’ philosophies are also an inspiration. When considering the danger of going to the Waorani people, the missionaries were not afraid and said, “They’re not ready for heaven—and we are.”
The production value is top notch. There are various interviews, real footage and photos from time these events happened, some reenactments, and recent footage with Steve Saint and his family living with the tribe. It is also a very touching and inspiring movie that is a must for any believer and also compelling enough for someone who doesn’t share the Christian faith. Seeing this will also be a good primer for a future narrative film said to already be in production.
See our review of the historical drama directly related to this film: END OF THE SPEAR