Review by C.J. Bunce
After World War II, in essence a world stunned with death and destruction emerged to try to forge its way into the future after one of the planet’s most trying challenges. Inspiring tens of millions was the true-life voyage of Norway’s Thor Heyerdahl, a pioneer made of the same mettle as Shackleton and Hillary. Heyerdahl was a student in Oslo who spent a year in Polynesia, where he developed the idea that peoples like the ancient Incas could have traveled across the Pacific Ocean and settled the area easier than saling from the west. After a decade trying to prove his hypothesis, Heyerdahl assembled a team of six men, five Norwegians and a Swede, and built a balsa raft consistent with parts and construction the Polynesians would have had available centuries before, which he named Kon-Tiki after an Incan sun god. His challenge? To complete the voyage from South America to Polynesia without assistance from modern technology.
Heyerdahl’s 1948 account of the voyage, Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, became one of the best-selling books of all time (selling more than 56 million copies), his 1950 documentary of the voyage, Kon-Tiki, earned an Oscar, and an impressive 2012 theatrical adaptation, also named Kon-Tiki, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film. Both of these films are now streaming on Amazon Prime.
Today we know that threads of ancient South Americans survive in the DNA of Polynesians, but back in the 1930s and 1940s (and still to this day) such theories were novel. Heyerdahl spent the rest of his 87 years after the Kon-Tiki voyage connecting the dots of ancient peoples traveling on theretofore unthought of journeys.
Second to Kon-Tiki, Heyerdahl became famous as the first modern explorer to Easter Island, and he documented his findings in his book, Aku-Aku, and 30 years later his return in Easter Island: The Mystery Solved. Heyerdahl inspired several generations with his travels and dozens of books. My own father was a young boy when he first read Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, and around the same age 30 years later I had chicken pox and my science teacher sent home with my mom that book and Aku-Aku (along with Gerald Hawkins’ Stonehenge Decoded) for my two weeks in isolation, sparking a lifetime of interest in exploration and unusual theories of history and science (see also the pseudoscience of Erich von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, Mysteries of the Unexplained, and Robert F. Marx’s In Quest of the Great White Gods, subjects of Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of… series and, of course, certain episodes of The X-Files).
Directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s 2012 film Kon-Tiki is a compelling adaptation of the book and documentary, justifying its status as Norway’s most expensive and highest-grossing film to date. The film is the kind of epic triumph to bring pride to anyone of Norwegian descent, and the actors’ makeup, hair, and costumes, with simple props on a desolate ocean, evoke the Vikings of a thousand years before. Part Shackleton, part Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander/The Far Side of the World, part Jon Krakauer’s Into thin Air, part William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth, and part Scott Kelly’s Endurance, with stunning cinematography (look for David Lean and Freddie Young vibes) like that of Endless Summer and Jaws, the film reminds viewers of the determination required to accomplish unprecedented feats.
Don’t expect the breathlessness of other adventure stories and modern action movies–it’s similar in tone to the enjoyable film The Aeronauts, but it has its moments, including a few run-ins with sharks and the final push to the end of the voyage in the crew’s final days on the raft. And those not wanting to see adaptations of the real-life demise of animals on the voyage will want to look away in a few spots. This was billed as a romance in some markets, which is laughable: this is devoid of all romance, except for the romance of exploration.
History’s Vikings co-star Gustaf Skarsgård plays Bengt Danielsson, joining Tobias Santelmann (The Last Kingdom) as Knut Haugland, Anders Baasmo Christiansen as Herman Watzinger, Jakob Oftebro as Torstein Raaby, Odd-Magnus Williamson (Ragnarok) as Erik Hesselberg, and Pål Sverre Hagen (What Happened to Monday) as Heyerdahl.
Include any or all of Heyerdahl’s original books on your must-read list. Heyerdahl’s engaging writing style will keep readers glued to Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft, Aku-Aku, and Easter Island: The Mystery Solved. Kon-Tiki, the documentary, and Kon-Tiki, the 2012 movie, are both streaming now on Amazon Prime, or add these films to your DVR watch list now.