Kon-Tiki: A Review

In Oslo, I would say there are at least three must-see tourist attractions: the Munch Museum, housing the paintings of Edvard Munch, Frogner Park, featuring the sculptures of Gustav Vigeland, and the Kon-Tiki/Viking ship museum.  I list the latter two together although they’re separate buildings, but they’re next door to each other, and both are well-worth a visit.  The Vikings, of course, sailed all over, as far west as the Americas, as far south as the Mediterranean sea, robbing and conquering all along the way. I’m half-Norwegian; I’m proud (ish) of my Viking heritage.  Ruefully proud, let’s say. But the Kon-Tiki is something else, a celebration of another very interesting Norwegian type, the scientist/adventurer, the explorer/naturalist/artist.  Another Oslo museum celebrates the Fram, the alarmingly tiny ship the great Fridtjof Nansen deliberately got stuck in the polar ice, to measure drift and also, basically, just to see what would happen.  Nansen’s the prototype, a celebrated scientist who was also a major explorer, a fearless adventurer, a diplomat and politician and Nobel Peace Prize winner. And then there’s Thor Heyerdahl.

Thor Heyerdahl was a scientist, a zoologist and ethnographer.  Before World War II, he studied the island peoples of Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas, and after hearing their folk tales of their own voyage to the islands, became convinced that they had not originated in Asia, as everyone at the time thought, but in South America. They had come west, not east, knew it, and said so. He tried to publish a book about this theory, but was rebuffed.  World War II found him back in Norway, where he fought with great distinction as a member of the Norwegian underground.  When the war ended, he returned to his theory.

He had found great similarities between the plant and animal life of Fatu Hiva and Peru. He found other cultural markers the two civilizations shared. And the prevailing winds and currents of the Pacific tend westward, not eastward from Asia.  The difficulty, though, was that the best archeological research in Peru hadn’t turned up anything like a boat.  The coastal Peruvians of 1500-2000 years in the past made due with balsa wood rafts.  The consensus was that such rafts could not possibly have survived a voyage of 5000 miles from Peru to Polynesia. Asians had boats, therefore Asians settled the islands.

So Heyerdahl built an ancient Peruvian boat, a raft, following the best specifications he could find from archeological research.  Built it of balsa, held together by rope.  And then he got some friends together, and off they sailed.

It’s a remarkable story, of courage and faith and determination and more than a little Norwegian pig-headedness.  For one thing, Heyerdahl wasn’t a sailor.  He had two experienced sailors on board, but he himself hadn’t spent much time in boats. He also (minor detail), couldn’t swim. He sought funding from every source he could think of, including National Geographic (a natural, one might think); they told him they weren’t interested in funding a suicide.  He eventually was funded by the government of Peru, who thought the voyage might prove a boost to patriotism, and who gave him boxes of unwanted American military rations and supplies (including a shark repellent, which they mistook for powdered soup and ate).   He did bring a short-wave radio, but for most of the voyage, it couldn’t contact anyone.  He also brought a film camera, thinking maybe a documentary of the voyage might be interesting to folks.  (In fact, the doc he eventually created won an Oscar in 1951).

That voyage, and the faith and determination of Thor Heyerdahl, are now the subjects of a major motion picture, Kon-Tiki, which was nominated for (but did not win), the 2012 Oscar for Best Foreign film.  It’s made by the directing team of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, who also made the Norwegian WWII patriotic epic Max Manus (and who are also signed up, apparently, to direct yet another Pirates of the Caribbean film: blarg).

Kon-Tiki is a well-made and exciting film.  My wife and I watched it, and enjoyed it very much.  Pȃl Sverre Hagen is a charismatic and exciting Heyerdahl, and Anders Baasmo Christiansen is suitably woebegon as Herman, the engineer-turned-refrigerator salesman who Heyerdahl meets in a New York bar, and decides, on a whim, to take on the trip.  One weakness in the film is that the other four adventurers were all, accurately enough, young blonde Norwegian guys, but in a movie, they tend to blend together, especially later in the voyage when they’ve all grown big blonde beards.  Not the actors’ fault, I suppose, but I did keep asking myself ‘wait, which one’s that?’  I do regret the understandable-but-frustrating decision to make the film in English.  Six Norwegians alone on a raft together would, I think, speak Norwegian, not English with Norwegian accents.  I wouldn’t have needed the subtitles, but my wife would have and says she wouldn’t have minded reading her way through the film.

At times, it’s spectacular.  Rønning and Sandberg seem to like shots fromway overhead, God’s p.o.v. shots, emphasizing the tiny raft alone on the vast ocean.  A number of sharks (uncredited) make appearances, and are suitably menacing, especially in a terrifying scene when sad-sack Herman falls overboard. And at one point, the raft is accompanied by a pod of whales, a lovely scene.

We do get a glimpse of Heyerdahl’s unhappy first marriage.  The very-Norwegian-looking Agnes Kittelsen plays Liv, Heyerdahl’s first wife, content enough in their early scenes together in Polynesia, but increasingly unwilling to support her husband’s (to her) hare-brained sail-across-the-Pacific-in-a-balsa-wood-raft scheme.

A quibble: if Rønning and Sandberg were more daring directors, they might have pushed the megalomania angle a bit further.  In fact, Heyerdahl’s scheme was a bit daft. And whenever the other characters (especially Herman) point out that the balsa they’re riding on is becoming seriously water-logged, or that the prevailing currents are not sending them to Polynesia at all, but the opposite direction, north towards the Galapagos, Heyerdahl’s response was always, ‘have faith.’  Don’t worry.  I know what I’m doing.  This is all going to work out.

It turns out, of course, that Thor Heyerdahl did know what he was doing, and it did all work out, quite brilliantly in fact. The currents drove them first northwest, then southwest, exactly as he anticipated. His theory, disbelieved by the entire scientific community of his day, is now accepted as, at least, a plausible possibility. If you grant similarities between Polynesia and Peru, and if the one barrier to believing in a connection between those two cultures is that Peruvian rafts couldn’t have made the voyage, well, at least that objection has to fall away when one dude builds one and sails it the whole distance.  Let us also grant, though, that his wife (or for that matter, Herman), may well also have been right, and the voyage could well have failed.

As a Mormon, too, let me add this: we rather like Heyerdahl, don’t we?  I remember taking a group of LDS BYU students to the Kon-Tiki museum, and how an hour visit stretched to three hours, the students riveted by the Kon-Tiki story.  Most had never heard of Heyerdahl–all got the LDS connection.  After all, the Book of Mormon also posits an alternative, non-Asian origin for the peoples of the Americas, and specifically, a non-Asian origin for Polynesians.  Hagoth, right?  I heard Heyerdahl address that very question in a fireside he gave in Oslo in 1975, while I was on my mission.  He was appropriately cautious in his conclusions, but I remember him saying, (I’m paraphrasing a talk I heard nearly forty years ago), ‘look, for you, this is a matter of religious faith, for me it’s a matter of science.  And I haven’t proved anything, except a possibility.  But I would agree that our theories . . . reach similar conclusions.’

So, yes, let’s be appropriately cautious. But let’s also agree on this point; there’s something exciting about a scientist who forms a theory, is greeted with skepticism, who is told ‘okay, smart guy: prove it.’  And puts his life on the line. And proves it.  That’s a fantastic story, and Kon-Tiki, the movie, honors that story.  See it.  It’s terrific.


2 thoughts on “Kon-Tiki: A Review

    1. admin Post author

      I did not know they’d made a Norwegian one! I wish I’d seen that one! Darn Netflix, not letting me choose! Anyway, it’s very good.


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