Have you ever risked your life to win an argument? Well, Thor
Heyerdahl did. He so firmly believed that the pre-Columbian Peruvians
could have sailed a wooden raft all the way to Polynesia that he set out to
prove it by doing it himself. It took 101 days, and a lot of grit,
especially with 1947 technology (no GPS, only the stars, the sun, a compass,
and a nautical mathematician). “Kon-Tiki,” named after the ancient
Incan sun god, is the dramatization of that epic voyage.
Thor (Pal Sverre Haen) is a charismatic scientist/anthropologist who
spent the 1930’s in Polynesia with his beautiful, dutiful wife Liv (Agnes
Kittelsen). While there, Thor became aware of the legends of the
indigenous, which is that their ancestors came not from the West, but from the
East. Thor assumed he meant the ancient Inca tribe from Peru. (In 1959,
James Michener was eager to prove that native Polynesians could have settled
Hawaii, arriving from Bora Bora by outrigger canoe, but he just wrote a novel
called “Hawaii.” Both allowed oral folklore to fire up their imaginations.
But if they’re both right, does that mean that the indigenous Hawaiians are
actually descended from the Incans?)
Thor gathers a motley crew of friends and acquaintances (a boyhood chum,
an American refrigerator salesman who claimed to be an engineer at heart, an
adventurer who would later die trying to ski to the North Pole, a video
photographer, and exactly one experienced seaman), and tried to raise funding
from among the adventurous elite: explorer’s clubs and the editors of
“National Geographic,” among others. Somehow he raised just enough
to supply his little expedition, but not enough to visit his wife back in
Norway first. He just called to say goodbye to her, and she could only
wish that her two sons would still have a father after he was through chasing
Thor was determined that they would use only materials that indigenous
peoples of 1500 years before would have used: logs from native trees,
and rope (not metal wire) to lash them together. A canvas sail, a wooden
mast, and a bare cabin for the crew. Of course, he did bring along a
radio, with attached telegraph, and dry rations that the Incans wouldn’t
have had, but hey, everybody’s inconsistent. They did do some fishing
along the way, though the movie doesn’t make it clear how they obtained
fresh water, presumably so it could focus on the sheer adventure of trying to
catch the right wind, tides, currents, and weather.
Yes, there were sharks along the way. And a couple of times there
was a man overboard on accident, and everyone else had to scramble mightily in
a clumsy raft with very limited maneuverability. And at the end, they
had to figure out how to “surf” a barrier reef by counting every 13th
wave, and trying to anchor the rest of the time---the first count was off, but
they got lucky and found the right rhythm, anyway.
At last, they stumble on to the sandy shore, delirious with their
accomplishment, which was considerable, but probably didn’t settle the
original argument “once and for all” (anthropologists apparently remain
divided on the issue). However, Thor did construct a documentary about
his voyage, which won an Academy Award in 1951, with his book since translated
into more than 70 languages, so there’s obviously something here that fires
the imagination of many.
“Kon-Tiki” is a real-life adventure that feels like a History
Channel special. The Norwegian actors speak English to each other, so
there’s not much need for subtitling with American audiences.
There’s some real and present danger, of course, but nothing too alarming
for children. This is one the whole family would enjoy together.
And afterwards they could talk about what true adventure might look like now.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,