The following three reviews from the Fall 2005 Visual Parables are reprinted in memory of a great Christian woman, Elisabeth Elliot Gren, who died on June 15, 2015. Her first husband, Jim Elliot, was one of the five missionaries killed back in the 1950s when they were trying to bring the gospel to a tribe in Ecuador that was noted for its murderous ways. For more on her remarkable life see the article in Christianity Today.
Documentary. Running time: 1 hour 36 min. Our star rating (1-5): 5
They do not make them more gripping than this recently released documentary, directed and written by Jim Hanon. It brings the story of the five missionaries murdered by Auca Indians in a South American jungle in the 1950’s up to date. Their story has already been well told by the widow of one of the slain, Elisabeth “Betty” Elliot, in a short documentary released about 40 years ago (see the review of Through Gates of Splendor below, as well as the just released animated short The Jim Elliot Story), so one might ask, why another film on this, a feature-length one at that? It takes but five minutes or so of viewing the new film to answer this. This film gives not only the perspective of Betty Elliot and the relatives of the other missionaries, but adds that of the Aucas, or as they are known by their true name today, the Waodani (Auca was the name given them by other Indian tribes, which means “Savage.”).
The film begins with some of the Waodani talking about their murderous past when any perceived slight could result in the wronged person retaliating with the spear that all were so skilled at using. The interviewees matter-of-factly show where the spear entered the body, either of the owner or that of a relative, and where the spearing took place. Several admit to their own killings, pointing out that that was before they learned that God did not want them to kill. An anthropologist observes that if the people had not changed their ways under the missionaries’ influence, they would have murdered their way to extinction, so great were the number of spearings.
Grace becomes truly “amazing” as the story of the murders unfolds, and the five wives agree to forgive the killers. The film then, using interviews and a considerable amount of home movies and photographs, delves into the background of the five men, showing how they became convinced of their call, first to be missionaries, and then, after arriving at their posts in Ecuador, believed they were called to try to reach the Waodanis with the gospel. The film delves into the violent history of the tribe, detailing how they had killed numerous workers for the oil companies that were building a road as part of their searching the jungle for deposits of oil. The five men knew all about this and prepared very carefully their mission to make contact with the people. Indeed, their first contact was very friendly, the two groups having exchanged gifts for a number of weeks, thanks to an ingenious process of lowering a basket from their plane that Nate had devised. What they could not plan for was a disturbance among the Waodani during the night of the visit that aroused suspicion and hostility and led to the attack on the men the next day.
After the recovery of the bodies, several of the wives went back to the U.S., but Elisabeth Elliot and her Aunt Rachel stayed at their jungle stations, eventually going with a woman named Dayuma and another Waodani woman to live with the villagers who had killed Jim and the others. Thanks to Dayuma, they learned the language, while the converted Dayuma preached to the villagers. We see lots of footage of the women and Betty’s young son and daughter playing with the Waodani children. Years later, daughter Valerie relates how she chose to go back to the village to be baptized in the river near her father’s grave, and how she asked to support her in the water two of the men, now friends, who had killed her father and his friends.
Steve Saint, son of the slain Nate Saint, also talks how he has gone back and worked and lived with the Waodani, training one of them to take his place. We see this man flying a light-craft plane, connecting the villagers to the outside world. Looking back on his boyhood, Steve reports that he soon discovered that the one thing that he shared with his Waodani playmates was that almost all of them had a father who had been speared to death, the strife within the tribe being so great.
A missionary grandson relates how they brought the Waodani, who had become like a grandfather to him when he lived in the village, to America to attend his college graduation. This sequence of home video, showing the culture shock of a man used to scarcity and no plumbing, provides a nicely humorous touch to the film. Today the Waodani live peaceful lives, their conditions bettered by the various programs, at first set up for them, but now mostly run by them.
The film includes shots of the widows talking about their husbands and their backgrounds, the picture of the missionaries that emerges being that they were anything but long-faced pietists sitting around reading only the Bible. One of them reports how her husband on Saturday nights would tune in their short-wave radio to the “Hit Parade” and tried to teach her to dance. She admits that his attempts weren’t successful because she would think of what her strict parents would say about her dancing were they to find out.
The DVD also includes a shortened version (about 45 minutes) suitable to show during a church school hour or at a family night. The flow is interspersed with a number of Scripture quotations that are related to the next section. These provide good stopping points to discuss what the group has just seen. I would recommend three sessions for the film: one when the film is shown all the way through, and the next two sessions when you start and stop the film for discussion. Plan to show the full documentary some evening, as I suspect people will want to see and hear all the many details edited out of the short version.
The other two films, reviewed below, could also be part of an extended study series. They all have a number of extra features helpful to those planning and leading the group. Early in 2006 there will even be a theatrical version of the story, entitled The End of the Spear. (Update: This powerful film was reviewed in the Spring 2006 Visual Parables.) That would be a good time to plan a series using the documentaries, perhaps advertised to the general public, “You have seen the drama The End of the Spear. Now come and discover the facts as told by those who participated in the story.”
Beyond Gates of Splendor is available on DVD from Amazon. The next film, Through Gates of Splendor, can be streamed via Amazon.
Through Gates of Splendor
Documentary Length: 36 minutes. Our star rating (1-5): 5.
Elisabeth “Betty” Elliot, widow of Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries killed in an Ecuadorian jungle by what were then called the Aucas, told her story in two books. In 1967 she narrated this film based on her books and highlighted by extensive movie footage. The fact that she herself lived the ordeal, combined with scenes showing the smiling, fun-loving missionaries (some of the footage was shot just before their murders), stimulates strong emotions in the viewer. This well produced film might be almost 40 years old, but it still deserves to be seen and discussed. Although some of the footage and photographs (the party that went in to bury the bodies fished out of the river a camera that contained the last images of the men and the three Aucas who had first visited them) are used in the recent documentary Beyond Gates of Splendor and also in the interview with Steve Saint on the Jim Elliot Story DVD, much of it is unique to this film. And what a strange, and inspiring, even amusing, sight many of the scenes are, in which the little blond Valerie Elliot plays with the bronze-skinned Auca children.
Betty’s narration goes into the background of Jim and how they met in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, married and went to live in their jungle station, connected with the other four missionary families and the outside world by radio and the yellow plane piloted by Nate Saint. We see the Auca village in the footage taken by the men and share their enthusiasm for taking the gospel to those reputed to be the most aggressive killers in the Amazon basin. We learn too that this was not a rash decision rushed into with no preparation. The men communicated with the Aucas by dropping gifts to them, and then exchanging gifts through an ingenious system of lowering a basket while Nate flew the plane in a tight circle that enabled the basket to be dropped straight down with little motion to either side. Most of all, we learn how transfiguring the faith and love of the gospel can be, with Betty and her daughter and Rachel Saint, sister of the slain Nate Saint, forgiving the Aucas (now called the Waodani) and moving into their village and sharing their lives.
By all means, buy all three films based on the tragic yet triumphant martyrdom of the five missionaries. Each film includes facts and observations not found in the others, helping viewers to obtain a fuller understanding of what happened and what motivated the five and those who survived and built upon the work they had barely begun. This film could be an important part of a five session series on “No Greater Love”—Session 1 Through Gates of Splendor; Session 2 The Jim Elliot Story; Session 3, 4 & 5 Beyond Gates of Splendor.
The Jim Elliot Story
Documentary Length: 30 minutes. Our star rating (1-5): 5.
This short animated film does an excellent job in bringing to children the story of Jim Elliot and his four fellow missionaries. It begins in the 1940s when Jim, a college wrestler, is practicing wrestling with a friend. While pinning and almost being pinned by his friend, he talks about their going into missionary work together. Thus the film provides some helpful background on the martyrs’ earlier life and, in Jim’s case, his marriage to Elizabeth, who becomes his partner in the jungle station in Ecuador. The violence is not shown in graphic detail, though it is not glossed over. The rest of the story unfolds very quickly, including the missionary families’ forgiveness and the moving into the jungle village of Rachel Saint and Betty Elliot with her daughter.
This would be a good investment for every church library and children’s program. The DVD includes a fascinating piece in which Steve Saint talks about his parents and his experience, and how he went about to investigate why the men, although they were armed, did not use their weapons to defend themselves. The answer is very revealing of the depth of the faith of the five martyrs.
The Jim Elliot Story is the first of a new series entitled “The Torchlighters: Heroes of the Faith.” This ambitious attempt to bring the great stories of famous Christians to the attention of children 8-12 years old is highly commendable. Future titles in production are: William Tyndale; John Bunyan; Eric Liddell; and Perpetua. Watch these pages for reports on them. If they are even half as good as the first title, you will not want to miss them. (Update: The series lived up to my expectations, many of them having been reviewed and recommended in VP since this written.)