The myth of the noble savage lives on in the popular imagination. This myth holds, of course, that indigenous tribespeople live in harmony with nature and with one another. A corollary, promoted by some anthropologists, says that the pristine cultures of such remote people groups should remain undisturbed by modernity—and especially by missionaries, who are seen as meddling cultural imperialists.
If this wishful fairytale is important to you, don't watch Beyond the Gates of Splendor, newly released on DVD. This documentary, telling the true story of five American missionaries murdered on a remote sandbar in Ecuador half a century ago, explodes the myth of the noble savage. But it doesn't stop there, showing through interviews with the five widows, two anthropologists, and numerous Waodani Indians the spiritual and social transformation of a murderous "stone age" tribe.
The film begins not with the missionaries, whose plight captured a shocked nation's attention through stunning coverage in Life magazine, but with the indigenous Waodani people, known derisively as the "Auca," which (loosely translated) means "naked savages." This small but feared group unwittingly did its best to live up (or down) to the stereotype.
At the time, the tribespeople killed not only hapless outsiders who crossed their territory, but one another, with a ferocity worse than anything seen in the slums of Chicago or Los Angeles. Beyond the Gates of Splendor, while not gory, relentlessly conveys through interviews with tribe members the pitiless culture of the Waodani, who would kill each other for what we might call the most insignificant slights. An estimated six in every ten adult deaths were homicides.
The documentary is noticeably short on evangelical ...