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 1930s in Polynesia with his beautiful, dutiful wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen). While there, Thor became aware of the legends of the indigenous people 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 his dreams.
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 by 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 onto 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.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.