No More Spears

Beyond the Gates of Splendor is a tale about missionaries, a violent Ecuadoran tribe and spiritual transformation, but Christ never even gets name-checked.

Libertarians and anarchists are fond of saying that government is the problem more often than it's the solution, and the less there is, the better. It sounds nice in theory -- who among us hasn't cursed the government? -- yet when the notion of minimal governing authority is taken to the extreme, you end up with the Waodani tribe of Ecuador, as they were in the middle 20th century. Overwhelmingly concerned with egalitarianism and absolute personal autonomy, the Waodani (then known as the Aucas) wound up having "no institutional method for resolving conflict," as an anthropologist informs us in the new documentary Beyond the Gates of Splendor.

The Wild West had nothing on these guys: Mess with another tribesman, and he'd gather up a posse to spear you to death. Oh, sure, they gave lip service to the notion of a deity that opposes killing; of course, there were no leaders to disseminate that belief. At one time, six out of every ten adult Waodani were the victims of homicide, almost always by spearing. (Maybe the NRA is right when it says guns don't kill people -- spears seem to have done the job more effectively than a South Central L.A. drive-by.)

Today, the Waodani are pacifists, having reduced their homicide rate by 90 percent. Initially, they wouldn't even allow this film to be released, but they relented when they heard about American school shootings like Columbine, hoping that their example could inspire a similar move away from violence in the States. It's a huge about-face for one of the most feared native tribes in recent history, and it all came about because of missionaries. But not, perhaps, in quite the way you'd expect.


Beyond the Gates of Splendor

Rated PG-13

It starts in 1956, when five American missionaries to Ecuador were brutally murdered by Aucas. Life magazine did a story at the time of the incident, and though presumably everything that happened in the years following the murders is a matter of historical record, it's probably best not to reveal all of the film's surprises here. (That said, Beyond the Gates' own Web site tells the entire story from beginning to end.)

Narration is provided by the aptly named Steve Saint, who was five years old at the time of his father's impalement in the Amazon rain forest. Initially providing us the back story of the Waodani, he shifts gears about a third of the way into the film and backtracks to the "origin" stories of the missionary families -- how each husband and wife met, and what brought them so far from home.

It's easy to get suspicious at this point that what you're watching is a thinly disguised Christian proselytizing movie. The protagonists clearly are people of deep faith, and the Waodani were transformed by something. Did they profess Jesus Christ to be their personal savior and thereby become born again?

Perhaps. But not during the course of the movie. Relax. This is a tale about spiritual transformation, but first-time director Jim Hanon is here to tell a true story, not to use it to beat you over the head into believing what the characters believe. He sticks to the facts and lets his subjects speculate about motive. Christ never even gets name-checked.

In fact, what's notable about the religion on display here is its emphasis on forgiveness and turning the other cheek -- a notion that seems to have been forgotten in the current climate of warmongering fundamentalists. Try this for martyrdom: When confronted with angry, violent warriors, the American missionaries refused to fight back, on the grounds that they believed they were ready to go to heaven but that their adversaries weren't. We can't know for sure who ended up in what afterlife, but the legacy they left behind is certainly admirable. As for family values, well, see the movie yourself for some interesting developments at the end regarding shifting family bonds.

Also worthy of commendation are the film's subtitles, which are outlined white with a shadow background. This may seem like a minor point to the casual viewer, but when compared to the almost illegible captions that accompany many foreign-language films, the rare one that gets it right greatly enhances the overall viewing experience.

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