Thor Heyerdahl had a theory. He believed that the Polynesians of the South Pacific did not originally come from Asia, as most experts believed. He speculated they actually migrated 1,500 years ago from South America. He based his theory in part on resemblance between the cryptic monuments on Easter Island and pre-Columbian designs in Peru. But in order to reach the distant South Pacific islands, Peruvians would be forced to cross the mighty Pacific in nothing sturdier than small rafts made of balsa wood. Impossible, Heyerdahl’s critics argued. So the Norwegian set out to prove it possible by sailing from Peru to the islands on a raft, which he called Kon-Tiki after the name of the Incan sun god.
His epic 3,770-mile (6,067 km) voyage, accompanied by five other courageous Scandinavians, is the subject of the recent movie KON-TIKI. The movie is based on Heyerdahl’s 1947 sailing excursion, which was detailed in his subsequent book and award-winning documentary. So far the film has received a lot of praise (despite taking a few creative liberties for excitement purposes). It was produced by Brit Jeremy Thomas (THE LAST EMPEROR) and directed by two young Norwegians, Joachim Roenning and Espen Sandberg. They grew up in a small village outside Oslo and idolized Heyerdahl.
“’He was ambitious and not afraid to admit it, which is not very Norwegian,’” says Roenning in the April 2013 issue of Smithsonian Magazine. “’We wanted to be a part of Heyerdahl’s adventure.’”
That adventure included not only Heyerdahl’s crossing the Pacific, but raising money for the expedition, hiring a crew idealistic and brave enough to join him, chopping down balsa trees in Peru to assemble the raft, and publicizing the adventure. Heyerdahl succeeded magnificently. Post-war America, Europe, and Australia were hungry for an inspirational diversion, and the world was riveted by tall, handsome Heyerdahl and his crazy scheme. To make things even more interesting, Heyerdahl was afraid of water and never learned how to swim.
“’Heyerdahl was a great storyteller, but his true genius was PR,’” says Roenning, who refers to the voyage as the world’s “first reality show.”
The critics who groused that Heyerdahl was on a suicide mission ended up eating their words. Rather than splitting the Manila rope lashings, or being ripped apart by 25-foot ocean waves, the balsa logs became “spongy” and comfortably melded with the rope. Water flowed through the logs “as if passing through the prongs of a fork.” Although there were perils (the usual storms and sharks, and even a phenomenal water spout), the crew made it to the islands unscathed.
But Heyerdahl never was able to convert those who mocked his anthropological theories. Most scientists and historians today believe that, based on “linguistic and cultural” evidence, the Pacific islanders did originate in Asia (though recent genetic evidence does reveal a tenuous link to Native Americans).
Apparently, getting the movie made was more of a problem than the Kon-Tiki’s actual voyage. Backers for the film were difficult to procure “because no one had died.” So the filmmakers decided to sacrifice the raft’s mascot, a parrot named Lorita! Finding acceptable scriptwriters was also troublesome. One of the early candidates had helped write the script for ET: THE EXTRATERRESTRIAL, but she made the mistake of inviting the aging Heyerdahl to see the movie RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, which she hoped to use as a model for her script. Heyerdahl was disdainful of Indiana Jones’s “approach to archaeology.” She wasn’t hired.