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A crew member dives overboard in the film. (Recorded Picture Company / The Kobal Collection)

Kon-Tiki Sails Again

A new film recreates the epic voyage—and revives the controversy over its legendary leader, Thor Heyerdahl

The most harrowing scene in Kon-Tiki, the new Oscar-nominated Norwegian film about the greatest sea voyage of modern times, turns out to be a fish story. In the 2012 reconstruction of this 1947 adventure, six amateur Scandinavian sailors—five of whom are tall, slim and valiant—build a replica of an ancient pre-Incan raft, christen it Kon-Tiki and sail westward from Peru along the Humboldt Current for French Polynesia, more than 3,700 nautical miles away. In mid-passage, their pet macaw is blown overboard and gobbled up by a big bad shark. During the scene in ques- tion, one of the tall and slim and valiant is so enraged by the bird’s death that he thrusts his bare hands into the Pacific, hauls in the shark and guts it with a savagery that would have made Norman Bates envious.

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The shark’s blood seeps through the balsa timbers of the Kon-Tiki, inciting a feeding frenzy down below. Meanwhile, the sixth crewmate—this one short, plump and craven—slips off the edge of the raft, which can neither stop nor turn back. As it drifts away from the drowning fat man, his slim companions frantically distract the crazed sharks with chunks of flesh. Then one seaman plunges to the rescue bearing a life belt secured to the raft by a long line. After several stomach-churning seconds Skinny reaches Fatty, and the others yank them in before they become Shark Bites.

It hardly matters that there never was a fat guy or a vengeful seaman, and that the munched macaw was really a parrot that vanished without drama into salt air. Like Lincoln, the film takes factual liberties and manufactures suspense. Like Zero Dark Thirty, it compresses a complex history into a cinematic narrative, intruding on reality and overtaking it. The irony is that the epic exploits of the Kon-Tiki’s crew had once seemed untoppable.

From the get-go, anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, the expedition’s charismatic and single-minded leader, had touted the voyage as the ultimate test of nerve and endurance. His daring travel adventure sparked a spontaneous media circus that turned him into a national hero and a global celebrity.

In Heyerdahl’s 1950 Kon-Tiki, Across the Pacific by Raft—a lively chronicle that sold more than 50 million copies and was translated into nearly 70 languages—and his 1950 Academy Award-winning documentary Kon-Tiki, the sailors were presented as 20th-century Vikings who had conquered the vast, lonely Pacific. The new movie elevates them from Vikings to Norse gods. “Thor had a special feeling of greatness about him,” says Jeremy Thomas, one of the film’s producers. “He was more than merely brave and courageous: He was mythic.”

Kon-Tiki is a gloss on a man whose towering self-regard allowed him to ignore critics who insisted he was on a suicide mission. Was the voyage a genuine scientific breakthrough or a rich kid’s diversion? By making Heyerdahl mythic and sidestepping the shifting layers of truth in his feats and scholarship, the filmmakers beg a reappraisal of his perch in popular consciousness.

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The myth of the Kon-Tiki begins during the late 1930s on the South Pacific island of Fatu Hiva, in the Marquesas chain. It was there that Heyerdahl and his new bride, Liv, took a yearlong honeymoon to research the origins of Polynesian animal life. While lying on a beach, gazing toward America, the University of Oslo-trained zoologist listened to a village elder recite the legends of his ancestors, towheaded men who arrived with the sun from the east. Their original home was high in the clouds. Their chieftain’s name was Tiki.

To Heyerdahl, the people described by the village elder sounded a lot like the fair-skinned Peruvians who were said in oral tradition to have lived by Lake Titicaca before the Incans. Ruled by the high priest and sun king Con-Tiki, they built temples with huge stone slabs quarried on an opposite shore and ferried across the water on balsa rafts. Supposedly, a turf war had wiped out most of the white race. Con-Tiki and a few companions escaped down the coast, eventually rafting westward across the ocean.

Heyerdahl hypothesized that Tiki and Kon-Tiki were one and the same, and the source of Pacific cultures was not Asia, as orthodox scholars held, but South America. It was no mere coincidence, he said, that the huge stone figures of Tiki on this Polynesian island resembled the monoliths left by pre-Incan civilizations. His radical conclusion: The original inhabitants of Polynesia had crossed the Pacific on rafts, 900 years before Columbus traversed the Atlantic.

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About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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