Kon-Tiki Sails Again

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

A crew member dives overboard in the film. (Recorded Picture Company / The Kobal Collection)
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Thomas sought funding, too. He hoped to mount Kon-Tiki as an English-language blockbuster with a $50 million budget. He sent a series of big-name screenwriters to confer with Heyerdahl, whose own script was rejected out of hand. Reportedly, Melissa Mathison of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial fame wrote a draft. Jacqueline remembers accompanying her husband to a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which starred Mathison’s then husband, Harrison Ford. “Thor was not impressed by Indiana Jones,” Jacqueline says. “They had different approaches to archaeology.”

Who would play Heyerdahl? Lots of names were tossed around: Ralph Fiennes, Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, Jude Law, Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and, Jacqueline’s personal favorite, Ewan McGregor. Basically, any big-name actor who could pass as a blond.

But even with Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games) aboard to direct, financing proved difficult. “Potential backers thought moviegoers wouldn’t be interested in the voyage because no one had died,” Thomas says. “You can’t make an adventure film about fishing and sunbathing.” The poor parrot Lorita would have to be sacrificed for art.

Before Heyerdahl’s death in 2002, Thomas reduced the movie’s scale and brought in Norwegian writer Petter Skavlan to reshape Kon-Tiki as a contemporary Norse tale. Noyce bowed out and was replaced by Roenning and Sandberg, whose 2008 World War II thriller Max Manus is Norway’s highest-grossing film ever.

Instead of filming on the high seas of Australia and Fiji, as Thomas had planned, the shooting location was moved to the Mediterranean island of Malta, where the costs were lower and the sea was flat. The budget shrunk to $15 million, petty cash by Hollywood standards. The Scandinavian cast did multiple takes in Norwegian and English. “I wanted more than 12 people to see the film,” Thomas said. In Norway, they already have: Kon-Tiki has already grossed some $14 million at the box office.

When discussing the movie, Thomas tends to sounds like a marketing guru who’s brought a dormant product back to life. “Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe and James Dean are still hot largely because they died young,” he says. “Heyerdahl got cold because he died very old. The new film will help invigorate his brand.”

Initially, the repackaging troubled Thor Jr. He objects to the depiction of crewmate Herman Watzinger. In real life, Watzinger was a plucky refrigeration engineer who resembled Gregory Peck. In the film, he’s a gutless, beer-gutted refrigerator salesman known to sharks as Lunch. “I regret that the filmmakers used Herman’s name,” says Thor Jr. “I understand why they needed a character who represented human weakness, but they should have called him Adam or Peter.”

Watzinger’s 70-year-old daughter, Trine, was not amused. Before the picture premiered last summer in Oslo, she complained to the Norwegian press. Accused of “character assassination,” the filmmakers tried to mollify Trine with the idea that Watzinger redeems himself at the end of the movie—his nifty scheme involving wave patterns propels the Kon-Tiki through the rollers. Still, she refused to attend the premiere. “A disclaimer has been inserted at the end of the DVD,” Thor Jr. says. “Of course, you have to sit through the closing credits to see it.”

His other concern was the aggressively romantic ending. On the beach in Raroia, a crewmate hands Thor Sr. a Dear Johan letter from Liv. In a voice-over, she selflessly explains why she’s dumping him: Unencumbered by family, he’ll be free to chase impossible dreams. The camera cuts from Liv—turning away from the sun and walking toward their house in the mountains of Norway—to Thor, squinting into the sun and toward the glowing sail of the Kon-Tiki.


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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