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When I was a kid in Minnesota in the 1970s, Thor was god. Thor Heyerdahl.
I read “The Ra Expeditions” when it was published in the early 1970s, and I might have seen the documentary, “Ra,” at the local movie theater. Both book and doc focused on Heyerdahl’s attempt to captain a boat made of papyrus from Morocco to the west to prove that ancient peoples could have done the same. The first boat, Ra (named after the Egyptian sun god), didn’t make it, but the second, “Ra II,” did, all the way to Barbados.
But eventually I got bored with it. The adventures were only so adventurous and the ethnography went over my head. I also didn’t get how it proved anything. If you showed that something could be done, how did it prove that it was done? Plus the notion of groups of people shifting continents thousands of years ago freaked me out. It made me feel small and meaningless, which I was, I just didn’t want to know it.
I knew about “Kon-Tiki,” of course, Heyerdahl’s attempt, in the late 1940s, to prove that Polynesia was populated not from the west, as was the prevailing theory, but from the east, specifically Peru. So I was excited when I heard last year that Norway, Heyerdahl’s country, where he’s still a god, had made a movie about this adventure. I was less excited to hear that they made two versions—in Norwegian for Norway, and in English for the rest of the world—but I was excited again when it was nominated for best foreign-language feature at the 2012-13 Academy Awards. It had to be good then, right?
It’s OK. It looks beautiful but it’s a fairly cookie-cutter biopic. We get the following:
- The childhood scene indicating the man he’ll become: He takes risks on an ice floe, falls in icy waters, is saved by a friend, and refuses to tell his parents he’ll never take such risks again.
- The early adventure that leads to the quest: In the 1930s, Heyerdahl (Pål Sverre Hagen) lives in Polynesia with his wife, Liv (Agnes Kittelsen), and comes to realize that the prevailing theories about how Polynesia was populated are wrong.
- The Powers-that-Be getting in the way of the quest: Publishers won’t publish his book, the National Geographic Society won’t hear him out, he barely gets into the Explorers Club in New York, all of which indicate our hero’s underdog status.
- The wife objecting to the quest: Surely the most tedious aspect of any of these stories. Someone please apologize to Ms. Kittelsen for the thankless role.
- The quest itself: The bulk of the movie: sailing a raft, with the wind and the tides, 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia, with five other men.
- A happy ending: Bien sur.
At some point, mid-ocean, I leaned over to Patricia and said, “It would be nice if they made one of these things about someone who was wrong.”
Patricia actually liked the movie less than I did. That doesn’t happen often. And this one is mostly handsome, blonde men, half-naked on a raft, surrounded by beautiful blue water and various fish and mammals. Yet it wasn’t enough for her.
“Couldn’t they have had better conversations on the raft?” she asked as we walked away from the theaters. “I know it’s supposed to be tedious, but good god.”
Admittedly, there were few conversations that stand out. Here’s one that does. At one point Herman (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) falls into shark-infested waters and is being left behind by the Kon-Tiki, which can’t turn around, which is subject only to the wind and the tides, and one of the men (apologies: they’re not very distinguishable) jumps in with a rope to save him. The others throw chum in the water to move the sharks away and both men are saved in thrilling fashion: flailing legs leaving the water just as the sharks arrive. Afterwards, this man talks about how many he killed during World War II and how it weighs on his conscience. Then he thanks Herman. “You saved my life,” Herman reminds him. “I know,” says the man. “Thank you.” That’s a nice moment. Good dialogue. But overall Patricia is right.
“And did they all have to be so stupid?” Patricia asked. “Heyerdahl can’t swim, the one guy puts tomato soup in the water thinking it’s shark repellent, the other guy [Herman] harpoons the whale. I mean, c’mon.”
This bothered me less. The idea that Heyerdahl embarked on this journey, 5,000 miles across the Pacific on a glorified raft, even though he couldn’t swim, indicates his mania to prove his theory. The other stuff is there to create tension, conflict. Or, as with the tomato soup, it’s comic relief. Of a kind.
“Plus they telegraphed everything,” Patricia said. “You knew exactly what was going to happen.”
One scene they don’t telegraph occurs right before Herman goes in the water. Throughout the journey, they’ve had a parrot named Lorita on board; but here she suddenly flies off and lands in the water and a shark gets her. (There was a parrot on the Kon-Tiki, by the way, but storms got her, not sharks.) The camera then focuses on Lorita’s caretaker as he moves with determination around the raft. I assumed he was becoming aware that they were surrounded by sharks, a sea of sharks, and the camera would pull back and reveal them churning in the water. Instead, at a key point, he reaches down and hooks the shark that ate Lorita and brings it on board, where it flails helplessly and is then killed. It’s a revenge scene of a kind I’ve never witnessed before.
But overall Patricia’s right. They did telegraph too much. I should have let her write this review.
The right stuff
The movie also overstates Heyerdahl’s role in bringing back the notion of “adventure” in the post-war world, crediting him with inspiring the test pilots that led to the space program. But these pilots were already doing what they were doing in the California desert long before Heyerdahl put together his raft.
Even so, I liked the movie well enough. Yes, there’s not enough complexity, and yes the men aren’t distinguishable enough. But it’s beautiful to look at, the adventure is a great adventure, and Heyerdahl is still a bit of a god to me. Plus the scene with the whale is just majestic. Its immensity. The way it dwarfs us.
I’m curious, though, what backlash, if any, awaited Heyerdahl when he finished the 5,000-mile journey and wrote his book. Did any other ethnographers and anthropologists react the way I reacted when I was young? Just because you showed something could be done doesn’t prove that it was done. Or did all the other evidence (pineapples, stone idols) seal the deal?
As for being nominated for best foreign language film at the 2012-13 Academy Awards? I would’ve gone with “The Deep” from Iceland.
May 27, 2013
© 2013 Erik Lundegaard