Would you sail a primitive raft for 4,300 nautical miles across the world’s biggest ocean for 101 days, using only the stars and ocean currents for navigation, just to prove a theory? What if you were afraid of water and couldn’t swim; would that stop you? It didn’t stop Thor Heryerdahl, whose incredible journey is documented in the upcoming film by The Weinstein Company, KON-TIKI.
While living on the remote island of Fatu Hiva with his wife, anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl explored how the South Seas were settled. Based on the evidence at hand (such as stone carvings, primitive navigation and botany), he developed his own hypothesis. What if Indonesian sailors weren’t the first settlers in Polynesia, but South American Indians, who crossed the immense Pacific Ocean on a pre-Columbian balsawood raft?
It was a bold idea.
For this to have taken place 1,500 years ago, these prehistoric explorers would have had to navigate the stars, follow the ocean’s currents, and sail a distance of about 4,300 nautical miles on a primitive balsawood raft – a dangerous journey into the great unknown without the aid modern invention.
But, Heyerdahl believed, it was possible.
As he proposed his theory to the scientific community – including the National Geographic Society – Heyerdahl faced a wall of resistance. Most orthodox scholars believed that humans migrated from Asia to Polynesia and that no primitive American watercraft could have endured months on the open Pacific Ocean. New York publishers and National Geographic magazine rejected publication of Heyerdahl’s controversial “Polynesia and America: A Study of Prehistoric Relations.”
Heyerdahl realized that he would have to prove his idea, and solicited investors to fund and document the voyage. Skeptics believed that he was headed on a suicide mission, and the National Geographic Society refused to sponsor him. Charismatic and determined, Heyerdahl didn’t take no for an answer; and tried to gain support for ten years. Finally, he decided that enough was enough. Heyerdahl was a lifelong nature lover and world traveler, and he decided to push forward with the risky mission himself.
Despite Heyerdahl’s fear of water, inability to swim, strained marriage, and financial debt, he teamed up with five companions and built a replica of the ancient balsawood raft. They named it ‘Kon-Tiki’ after a sun god and set sail from Peru in 1947 with a parrot for company and only a single piece of technology, the radio.
Together, the adventurers drifted the open ocean for 101 days across 4,300 nautical miles – the equivalent of Chicago to Moscow – while the world anxiously tuned into their dangerous journey via radio updates. Heyerdahl, his crew, and the balsawood raft survived encounters with sharks, thrashing storms, and battering waves on the high seas before landing on dry sand on the Polynesian atoll of Raroia.
Although Heyerdahl’s theory on human migration to Polynesia is likely wrong, he succeeded in proving it could have happened by his legendary ocean voyage. Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl took home the 1951 Academy Award for his black-and-white film documentary of this legendary mission. His book, The Kon-Tiki Expedition by Raft Across the South Seas, was translated into 70 languages and sold over 50 million copies worldwide.
The 2013 film KON-TIKI explores the origins of Heyerdahl’s theory and the great adventure of the group’s astonishing expedition. While the movie draws upon Heyerdahl’s documentary and book, KON-TIKI brings the epic voyage to life with vibrant color and dives deeper into the personal story of the Norwegian hero.
KON-TIKI Directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning are childhood friends from a small town in Norway; located just ten minutes away from Larvik, where Heyerdahl was raised. They grew up with this story and felt close to him in a way. Heyerdahl was the first and only Norwegian to win an Academy Award for a feature film, and these aspiring filmmakers were inspired by him. Sandberg recounts, “As kids, we went to the KON-TIKI museum in Oslo – they have the raft there. Being a young boy, it’s very intriguing because we lived by the sea and we’d been sailing, making little rafts… and to see that and imagine being on the biggest ocean on Earth… It’s fascinating. And then when we walked down into the basement of the museum, you get under the raft. And there they have all of the marine life, including a giant whale shark. So when we saw that… we wanted to make it come to life.” Heyerdahl’s Oscar is also on display at the museum.
Years ago, Sandberg and Ronning tried to get the rights to the film, but they were told to forget about it because someone else wanted it. So they went on to make another film, MAX MANUS. It did incredibly well in Norway, selling about 1.2 million tickets to a population of 5 million. The movie’s success and epic-quality attracted the attention of Academy Award® winner Jeremy Thomas, and Ronning and Sandberg signed on to direct KON-TIKI, much to their excitement.
Heyerdahl had waited many, many years to sell the rights to his story, and he gave the green light on KON-TIKI’s premise before his passing in 2002. Sandberg and Ronning knew if they could combine incredible visuals with true drama and organic scenes, they could achieve something very special. “We wanted the audience to go on an exotic voyage,” says Sandberg. “That was paramount for us.”
But there wasn’t the budget or resources to wait for that whale shark they’d been dreaming to film for so many years. So they had to create it in the computer, along with all of the other Scandinavian sharks that appear in KON-TIKI. But achieving the ‘realness’ of the film’s marine life was a daunting and important task, which took over a year to complete and required the efforts of hundreds of people. Ronning shares that this was probably one of the most difficult elements in the movie, and also one with the greatest risk. “We knew that if the animals weren’t coming out real, we could just throw it away. And we didn’t really know until half a year after we shot the film – that’s when we started seeing the first animals in the movie, actually – and I remember it being a huge relief, seeing some of those first shots.”
KON-TIKI was filmed in six different countries, with the majority taking place in Malta and on the Mediterranean. The film’s tangaroa-made raft is a replica of the one Thor Heyerdahl’s grandson actually sailed from Peru to Polynesia in 2006. Sandberg and Ronning had heard horror stories about filming on open water, and everybody warned them to minimize it. But when they started to roll tape on the raft, with the waves crashing down and the actors learning how to sail in the moment, they found magic. “We’re so happy we did that, against all the warnings, and shot for four weeks,” says Ronning. “We rounded up [filming] in this huge water tank in Malta. It’s the size of a football field basically, and that’s where we shot the night and storm scenes.”
While the KON-TIKI film is sure to stir a dialogue on Heyerdahl’s controversial human migration theories, the movie’s audience can draw life lessons from his story. “I think that a lot of people have a dream to travel and see new places… and, in a way, explore… climb that mountain, sail that ocean,” says Sandberg. Ronning adds, “For ten years, he [Heyerdahl] tried to find support… and the establishments were skeptical to it, and rightfully so. He probably wasn’t right. But I think it was important for Thor that they [South Americans] could’ve done it, and it became an obsession with him. The more rejection he got, the more stubborn he got. It fueled his motivation… He [Heyerdahl] couldn’t swim, he was terrified of water, so I think there’s a lesson there also. Very often we do stop ourselves, and we limit our lives. So we want to inspire people to dare to make their lives a little more adventurous.”
Heyerdahl continued his experimental anthropology after the KON-TIKI mission, and the National Geographic Society eventually partnered with him on future expeditions to test his bold theories. He went on to cross two more oceans in a primitive watercraft to test ideas on human migration, he discovered pre-Inca pottery in the Galapagos Islands, and he helped ignite interest in the study of moai statues on Easter Island. Heyerdahl also navigated two papyrus-made ships on voyages, debunking the previously-drawn conclusion that papyrus reed dissolved after two weeks in water. He also enjoyed traveling the world (70 trips in his last year of life) to guest lecture for the Explorers Club and support specific projects.
While scholars may disagree on Thor Heyerdahl’s scientific theories, he was a lifelong protector of the planet, lover of nature, and passionate world traveler. He once wrote a testament for his kin, stating, “You are now to take over this planet; take good care of it. We did not, when we borrowed it before you. Forgive us for the forests we have depleted… Help to heal the system we have wounded.. All that walk and crawl and swim and fly are members of our extended family.”
Catch Kon-Tiki in theaters April 26th, and look out for the making-of special, Kon-Tiki: The Incredible True Story, airing Friday, May 3rd at 7P on National Geographic Channel.