Thor Heyerdahl was an idiot. A brave and intrepid adventurer, sure. Charismatic, handsome, an original thinker, no question. Norwegian, don’t you know. But what kind of nut would you have to be to build a raft out of balsa logs and try to sail it from Peru to Polynesia when you can’t swim (like me) and have a phobia of being underwater (also like me)? Sure, he wanted to do this to prove that people from South America could have populated the islands, rather than from Asia, as everyone else thought, and thus he used only materials available to them, and methods they could have used … but would it have disgraced you to take a few life jackets with you, Thor? Was it necessary to drown like these mythical sailors would have drowned if you were swept overboard? Of the six people on the raft, only one of them (not Thor) had ever been to sea on any sort of craft at all, and none of them knew diddley squat about sailing, though they brought a sail. That they made it was a case of dumb luck. (But then, so was Columbus’s voyages … and he was an idiot, too. He never realized he hadn’t reached Asia.)
Just about everybody knows of the voyage of the Kon-Tiki. It was a gigantic news story at the time, and has become a legendary adventure. But there are several things about the trip and about Thor that are not spoken of too loudly. One is that he didn’t “prove” shit. He only showed that it could have been done. So far as I know, most everyone still reckons that the Pacific settlers came from the west. Genetic studies back this up.
Another thing concerns two later voyages, board the Ra (which came apart and sank after 4,000 miles) and the Ra II (which made it from Morocco to Barbados). These were boats made of bundled reeds, meant to demonstrate that humans could have voyaged from North Africa to the Americas considerably earlier than Columbus. Well, sure, we know that Vikings were in North America at least around 1000 AD, and probably even earlier. But here’s the funny thing. It all ties in with the Polynesian theory. Thor thought that a race of tall, white, bearded people taught the pre-Incan Peruvians everything they knew about erecting the huge stone monuments that can be found around Lake Titicaca, and maybe how to build boats. In other words … Norwegians. One assumes they made their way down through Panama—possibly pausing to consider whether or not they should dig a canal there?—before arriving to educate the short, brown, whisker-challenged, stupid people they found there. Whoa, Thor! That sucks!
Okay … no question it was a great adventure, and this dramatic recreation shows much of it with a fair degree of accuracy. (One character was treated pretty shabbily on the screen; he wasn’t the coward in real life he is shown to be.) Thor wrote it all up later and sold millions and millions of copies in seventy languages, and also shot home movies aboard ship with a Bolex movie camera exactly like one I owned and used back in the ‘60s. It’s exciting, and some of it was actually shot on the open sea, which is very hard. (Most of it was shot in a huge open tank and the sea was CGIed in later. There’s a good short on the DVD that strips away the stuff that was blended in later, and it’s educational to see how little that’s on the screen was actually there during the shooting.) The SFX are quite good, particularly a whale shark and a pack of the ubiquitous Great Whites. Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen is very good with his piercing blue eyes and Nordic features, able to convey the obsessive, slightly insane attitude of Heyerdahl, a man with boundless faith in his own destiny, and one of the luckiest men who ever lived.