Find the Man Behind the Kon-Tiki Legend


A scene from Kon-Tiki (Photo courtesy of Nordisk Film)

Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl’s 8,000-kilometer voyage across the Pacific Ocean on the balsa raft Kon-Tiki in 1947 stands as one of the greatest post-World War II feats of exploration, and cemented his standing as a legendary adventurer.

But the 2012 Norwegian feature film “Kon-Tiki,” inspired by Heyerdahl’s epic crossing from Peru to Polynesia to prove his theory that the islands were colonized by people from South America instead of Asia, took on a challenge that is no less daunting — finding the man behind the legend.

Norwegian directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg begin with Heyerdahl’s childhood in his hometown Larvik, in which he fell through the ice trying to cross from one ice floe to another. The scene conveys the mix of curiosity and recklessness that defines the older Heyerdahl. Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen’s portrayal of Heyerdahl juxtaposes his gangly, cheerful naivete and vision, with looks and charisma reminiscent of Peter O’Toole’s turn as T.E. Lawrence in the classic “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Heyerdahl’s charisma is evident from his ability to draw five volunteers for the seemingly foolhardy man-versus-nature mission, among them refrigerator salesman Herman Watzinger (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) as well as anthropologist and filmmaker Bengt Danielsson (Gustaf Skarsgard), who as a Swede stood out among the Kon-Tiki’s all-Norwegian crew.

Hagen provided the perfect vehicle for Ronning and Sandberg’s bid to disassemble Heyerdahl’s mythological stature, such as his lack of sailing experience and his inability to swim. He managed to convey Heyerdahl’s dogged, quiet determination to pursue his vision and overcome various challenges, ranging from rejection by the National Geographic Society and academic circles, to dealing with tensions among the Kon-Tiki’s crew. The film portrays Hagen just as astute in capturing Heyerdahl’s obsessive desperation to prove he is right, even at the risk of his own life and his crewmen.

This is captured most poignantly in one scene in which he threw away Watzinger’s lead wiring after the latter offered to lash the Kon-Tiki’s balsa logs with them, instead of the traditional hemp rope that bound the raft together.

In addition Hagen also captured Heyerdahl’s powerlessness in dealing with some problems that still bothered him, such as his deteriorating relationship with his wife Liv (Agnes Kittelsen).

The film’s most memorable moments lie in its wide views of the ocean, following the filmmaker’s decision to shoot in the open sea instead of on a set, to give a more authentic feel to the feats of Heyerdahl and the rest of the Kon-Tiki crew. The filmmakers managed to capture the perils of the open ocean with shots of giant waves and sea-storms. They also skirted with “Jaws,” as it showed the crew grappling with an array of sharks, such as the great white and whale sharks. True to its form as historical drama though, “Kon-Tiki” never deteriorated into the campy bloodbath that defined “Jaws” as a franchise.

But just as the sea dwarfed the six men on the Kon-Tiki, the movie’s focus on its epic subject matter also minimized tensions among the characters. Much of the conflict is portrayed in a subdued manner, such as the effects of cabin fever among the Kon-Tiki’s crew.

“Kon-Tiki” was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.

Originally published in The Jakarta Globe on May 15, 2013

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