Missionary slayings 50 years ago probed in big screen documentary

DALLAS?The Waodani Indians of Ecuador were killing 6 of every 10 of their tribesmen when American missionaries entered their isolated camp in January 1956. Anthropologists say the tribe was one of the most violent cultures ever documented and headed toward extinction.

The missionaries?Nate Saint, Jim Elliott, Peter Fleming, Ed McCully and Roger Youderian?lowered buckets of gifts to the Waodani from an airplane that circled the Amazon basin jungle for 11 weeks in late 1955 before the Waodani returned the favor, sending a bird up in the bucket as a reciprocal gesture.

On Jan. 7, 1956, the men landed their plane on a sandbar near the Waodani and made friendly contact.

On Jan. 8, 1956, the tribesmen speared them to death.

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 thousands of readers from a Christian perspective.

Almost 50 years later, the tale?with updated material?comes to the big-screen in a movie-length documentary drama.

“Beyond the Gates of Splendor” debuted in Houston Jan. 28 and is planned for other selected U.S. cities, including Dallas, in the coming weeks. It weaves a definitive story around the missionaries and their families, the Waodani tribesmen (thought to be “Auca” Indians in 1956) and the unlikely story of courage and redemption after two missionary widows, a sister of a slain missionary, and?years later?the son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren of Nate Saint settle among the tribe.

The documentary profiles the Waodani from the perspectives of two Darwinian anthropologists who studied the tribe. The film 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 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.

The film is intended to be “pre-evangelism,” said producer Kevin McAfee of Every Tribe Entertainment, the Oklahoma City film company that made it.

He described it as a film that aims to raise questions about the missionaries’ faith and their motivations in reaching the Waodani?something perhaps discussed over coffee at Starbucks afterward, he said.

McAfee was also musical director of the film, which includes dramatic orchestral sounds and even Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home, Alabama” during one of its lighter moments.

“Beyond the Gates of Splendor” debuted in Oklahoma City and Tulsa in November and December, drew second in box office receipts behind “The Incredibles” and ran three weeks longer than expected, McAfee said after a Dallas screening earlier this month.

It is scheduled to show in Houston, Dallas and Los Angeles in the first quarter of 2005. It received the Crystal Heart Award at the Heartland Film Festival and “Audience Favorite” at the Palm Beach Film Festival.

In producing its first full-length project for theaters, Every Tribe Entertainment hired McAfee along with Bill Ewing, a former vice president at Columbia Tri-Star and now president of Every Tribe, and Jim Hanon, a Cannes Film Festival award-winner, as a writer and director.

Mart Green, founder of Mardel, a Christian retail chain, is founder

TEXAN Correspondent
Jerry Pierce
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