Fact vs. Fiction: Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki
Major film studios have always had a loose relationship with historical accuracy; it hardly takes the most well schooled of film buffs to highlight the blaring liberties taken in U-571, for example. While taking a few minor liberties with the truth to produce a better dramatic film might seem acceptable, it can be hard to fathom the reasoning behind some changes film producers and screenwriters have made and even recent successful films like The King’s Speech and Argo attracted some criticism for their deviations from the truth.
So welcome to the first instalment of Fact vs. Fiction; a feature where we look at how real life events have been portrayed in films and how faithful to those events the films have remained. We’ll look at a fictionalised account of an historical moment, person or series of events and also at a documentary film made around the same topic.
In this first outing we look at the 1947 voyage of Thor Heyerdahl’s Kon Tiki.
For the unfamiliar, Heyerdahl’s own fact-filled one hour documentary, Kon Tiki, winner of the 1951 Academy Award winner for best Documentary is an good place to start: It had long been held that Polynesia had been settled by Asian migrants, but Norwegian anthropologist and explorer Heyerdahl theorised that the original settlers came some 5,000 miles from South America. He reasoned that the strong trade currents and prevailing winds come that way and he noticed similarities between Inca ruins in Peru and some ancient stone statues in Polynesia.
His theories were debunked, as historians and anthropologists argued that ancient South American societies were only capable of building flimsy balsa wood rafts that would be incapable of making such a long journey across the open sea.
Heyerdahl intended to prove them wrong. Using only ancient techniques and materials that would have been available 1500 years past, Heyerdahl built a simple balsa wood raft with a bamboo hut. The raft was tied together with no rivets, screws or bolts.
Naming the ship Kon Tiki after a Sun God in ancient Inca lands, who was said to have been banished from Peru and forced to sail across the pacific, Heyerdahl and his five crew members would sail the 5,000 miles from Peru to Polynesia – that’s roughly the same distance as San Francisco to Iceland; or Iceland to Ethiopia, using just the wind and currents to guide them.
In April 1947 they set off from Callao, Peru with hopes of reaching Polynesia before the hurricane season. Their voyage would last over three months, during which time they sighted no other ships and endured two storms.
Aside from a few maps and graphs, all of the footage in the 1951 Kon Tiki documentary was shot during the actual voyage with a handheld camera. The crew also tied a rubber dinghy to the back of the Kon Tiki for exterior shots – as well as being a place they could go for a while if they grew weary of the others company.
After 93 days alone at sea, the crew first sighted Polynesian natives who rowed out in canoes to meet the travellers. However, after travelling thousands of miles on the ocean currents the crew found it impossible to sail against the currents by only a couple of hundred yards and sailed right past their curious greeters.
It would be 101 days before they were washed up in a great reef and a week after making it to a small, uninhabited island natives from a neighbouring island sailed over to greet them. They had made contact with natives in Polynesia and the news of their feat quickly spread worldwide.
Full of information and primary source material, the documentary tells a great story of human determination and endeavour but a story which is not necessarily the most cinematic. Making the film more to validate his theories and document the voyage than entertain audiences; Heyerdahl simply relays the facts, not dwelling or expanding on any potential for emotional investment or dramatic tension. These are part of the reasons why it runs for a mere hour.
The Oscar nominated 2012 dramatisation of the Kon Tiki exploration was unusually filmed twice, once in Norwegian and again in English for an international market. It remains the most expensive film production in Norway’s history. It is visually lush with rich and vibrant colours and with a strong lead performance from Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen as the determined Heyerdahl.
It stays largely true to the real life events with only a couple of examples of dramatic licence: the ships’ parrot, Lorita, is eaten by a shark for example, whereas the real life bird was swept away in a storm; and a few details of how the expedition was stocked and funded are changed to make Heyerdahl’s struggle to get the project afloat fit a more traditional narrative flow.
The most controversial choices relate to the characters of the crew: the second in command Herman Watzinger is portrayed as tearfully begging Heyerdahl to add modern steel wire to support the raft during a heated argument after Watzinger has disobeyed a direct order. Neither the 1951 documentary or Heyerdahl’s own written book about the voyage include such an incident and many contemporary sources site Watzinger as a confident personality, not the nervous and fearful character portrayed in the film. It is perhaps understandable that the film-makers wanted to insert some drama into what could have been almost two hours of six men floating on a raft, but as film critic Andrew Barker pointed out, “It’s frustratingly ironic that Kon Tiki’s most outrageously fantastical sequences are completely verifiable, and its most predictable, workaday conflicts are completely made up.”
As the fictionalised account stays very true to history, which feature the newcomer chooses to watch should be down to personal preference: the documentary is nearly all primary footage, narrated by Heyerdahl himself but studiously avoids any sensationalism or dramatic tension; the feature film takes the odd, slight dramatic licence to fit the story into a more traditional and accessible westernised action/adventure mode but lacks in finer detail.