I recently saw the film Kon-Tiki, a retelling of the documentary by Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1947 sailed with a crew of five from Callao, Peru, 5,000 miles across the Pacific to Polynesia on a balsa raft to prove that people from South America could have made the same trip in earlier times.
It’s a really good movie! The directors of this 2012 Norwegian film, Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, have put together an outstanding package of fine casting, excellent directing, high drama, chilling special effects, and superb photography. It was nominated for an Oscar last year in the category “Best Foreign Language Film,” and in fact the movie had two scripts: the actors played all the scenes twice, once in English and once in Norwegian.
Heyerdahl was one of the great explorers of the twentieth century. He was also controversial. He saw himself as a scientist, and he spent decades doing field research in zoology and ethnography. But he was largely self-taught, and many mainstream scholars have questioned his lack of scientific credentials and his unwillingness to look at facts that might disprove his theories. Some have seen him as arrogant. Others, like me, have admired him immensely for his brilliant mind, superhuman determination, and the stark bravery it took to embark on this voyage with only the materials that were available to ancient Peruvians. He had a point to prove, and he did.
His daily Morse code reports from the raft, his book (translated into over 70 languages), and his documentary film of the journey electrified the imagination of millions and turned him into a hero in the 1950s.
Actor Pål Sverre Hagen re-creates Heyerdahl exactly as I have imagined him. He skillfully captures the man’s unswerving determination and his understated emotions, ultimately belied by the expression of raw triumph on his face when he wades to land in Polynesia. While holding our sympathy throughout, Hagen also shows us how Heyerdahl’s fight for his belief against all odds could be misread as arrogance, or at least indifference to the thoughts and feelings of others, and we begin to understand why he had detractors.
At the beginning of the film we learn that Heyerdahl nearly died from drowning as a child. It left him with an abiding fear of water, and he didn’t even know how to swim, which inspires even greater respect for his daring accomplishments at sea.
The narrative then fast-forwards to 1937, ten years before the Kon-Tiki crossing, with Heyerdahl on an entomology expedition on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Archipelago. He hears a local legend that one of the natives’ forefathers was a light-skinned priest with red hair, Tiki, who came across the ocean from a mountainous country in the east where the sun rises. Hearing this story, he wonders if some of the people in Polynesia had ancestors in South America. He begins to look for New World evidence to back up his theory and soon narrows his quest on Peru, where mummies had been found with long faces and red hair. As he continues his research, he becomes excited when he discovers the perfect counterpoint to the legend he heard in Fatu Hiva: the tale of a fair-skinned people living in the Andes near Lake Titicaca who were nearly wiped out by a rival group. Their high priest, Kon-Tiki (Sun-God), managed to escape with a few of his closest followers, travel down to the coast, and disappear into the ocean heading west. Even the name is the same.
Now Heyerdahl is not only convinced, he becomes obsessed. He does more research and adds details to fill in the logical scenario. The ultimate test, he believes, is to replicate the means and route by which these early people could have traveled across the Pacific. If he can do that, his theory will be proven beyond a doubt.
One might think it would be difficult to turn 101 days on the open sea into a cohesive, exciting movie for today’s audiences, but it has plenty of action, thanks to a school of sharks that follow the raft, and many other thrills and spills. I was on the edge of my seat every minute.
Just as I was when I saw the original documentary 60 years ago. Yes, I have to confess that I have had a Kon-Tiki-thing going for the better part of my life. I read Heyerdahl’s book three times and have been following his adventures ever since. I even paid homage to the raft itself at the Kon-Tiki museum in Oslo. I am now reading the book once again and seeing it in a new light. This time I’m appreciating, aside from the story and the drama, how beautifully it’s written and how far ahead of the times Heyerdahl was in his zeal to preserve the planet—“the system we have wounded.”
The movie opened my eyes to some of the criticism of Heyerdahl’s work. But whatever his faults, his accomplishments and determination boggle the mind, and he has stories to tell that will give tantalizing food for thought to future generations of scientists and armchair explorers.
The film succeeds in every way. Even though it isn’t showing in many theaters, I’m hoping its audience will grow. It deserves to become a classic.