Speaking as someone whose taste for adventure doesn’t stretch much further than going to the dairy in the rain, the reckless self-endangerment represented by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg’s Kon-Tiki was a genuine eye-opener. The bones of the story are well-known enough to anyone who built balsa models of Heyerdahl’s raft at primary school in the 1970s but bear repeating here.
While researching native Tahitians in the late 1940s, Norwegian ethno-explorer Thor Heyerdahl posited a theory that the islands of Polynesia had originally been settled by sailors from South America (actually, bearing in mind the technology of the time they would have been more like the drifters from South America, but hey). Unable to persuade anyone in the scientific community, he was forced to experiment on himself. He went to Peru, built a raft, crewed it with other northern European adventurers and set off to find Polynesia.
With little or no experience, training or even aptitude, it was a giant leap of faith – Thor’s faith. Unable to steer, threatened by sharks and – for most of the time – without radio contact, it was a completely potty idea but an idea that transformed our knowledge of human development and changed history.
In Rønning and Sandberg’s film, Heyerdahl comes across as an obsessive and extremely difficult man, but the way they portray the adventure it becomes clear that there was really no other way. Heyerdahl’s faith wasn’t a million miles away from the totally blind faith of the first explorers who set out from Peru all those centuries ago. That obsession is also shared by the filmmakers who insisted on using a replica ocean-going raft (incidentally named Tangaroa) built by Heyerdahl’s grandson, and then chose to shoot on the open sea rather than in a tank.