Kon-Tiki, the 1950 film of Thor Heyerdahl’s expedition from Peru to Polynesia, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Narrated matter-of-factly by Heyerdahl himself, the film is a rather staid affair. Unlike this dramatic retelling of the voyage, in which the doldrums are only entered whenever the crew engage in fictional confrontations. Elsewhere, the film’s recreation of the crew’s adventure provides many wondrous cinematic moments.
Unable to find support for his theory that Polynesia was originally colonised by South Americans, Heyerdahl determines to build a raft and sail it from Peru to prove that such a voyage was possible. Adhering to ancient construction techniques and material, Heyerdahl is joined by a navigator, ethnographer, radio operator, telegraphist and… a refrigerator salesman. The fact that this last gentleman was also the engineer in charge of the raft’s construction is of little consequence to the script’s demands.
Once the voyage is underway it doesn’t take long before the crew encounter all manner of sea-life. Flying fish throw themselves aboard the raft, phosphorous squids light up the ocean and a pod of whales cruise nearby. Most memorable is a curious whale shark who repeatedly dives underneath the raft. It is a majestic scene, brought to an abrupt end by, you guessed it, a frightened refrigerator salesman. Marked from the start as a hindrance to the expedition, his persistent pessimism is as predictable as Heyerdahl’s tendency to invoke Jaws’ Quint.
Here special mention must be paid to the film’s visual effects. The life-like rendering of the ever present sharks adds immeasurably to the tension, much more so than any manufactured bickering between the crew. More faithful to the crew’s actual dynamic is the depiction of their friendly banter, which produces some of the film's more memorable lines. “Have faith” Heyerdahl often exclaims to which his navigator finally responds “I have faith. The problem is I also have a sextant!”
More prescient is the ethnologist’s observation that “there’s money to be made in a documentary done right”, before reminding Heyerdahl to take the camera’s lens cap off.
Herman Watzinger was a refrigeration engineer, not a refrigerator salesman. He also didn’t harpoon the whale shark.
Thor Heyerdahl’s wife did not write him a letter to be read at the end of the expedition.
Lorita, the ship’s parrot, was not eaten by a shark.
Biopic recreates several episodes from the 1950 documentary, including this raft's departure from Peru, diving in a shark cage made of a fruit basket, rope and bamboo, and the encounter with the whale shark.