The 1951 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, KON-TIKI, tells the story of a modern-day sailing expedition from South America to the Polynesian Islands. Though the film lacks dramatic impact, the heartfelt efforts by the sailor-filmmakers shine through.
In 1947 Norway, anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl sets out to prove that the Inca Indians of South America--using trade winds and equatorial currents--successfully migrated to the South Seas many years before their European counterparts. Heyerdahl convinces several sponsors, including the Norwegian
and US governments, to fund a mission that re-creates the ancient voyages. Heyerdahl and his crew travel to Peru, where they assemble a raft made of balsa wood logs, a key to surviving the long journey ahead.
Dubbing their raft "Kon-Tiki" (Inca for sun god), the crew sets sail despite dire warnings from skeptical critics. The first several days prove difficult, indeed, as the Kon-Tiki battles fierce waves, winds, and shark attacks. But eventual calm enables the crew to get on with their research,
filming, and shark-fishing. After one month, the Kon-Tiki reaches the Galapagos Islands; after 45 days, it is half-way to the Polynesian Islands. Finally, after 101 days, the Kon-Tiki nearly reaches the shore, but the raft needs to surmount the dangerous coral reef in order for the crew to
Fortunately, the balsa wood survives the coral, and the crew meets with Polynesian natives on the island where they land. The success of the journey supports Heyerdahl's theory of "racial migration," and his work is acknowledged worldwide. On Tahiti, Heyerdahl is adopted by an island chief as his
Compact and straightforward, KON-TIKI fits in with the oldest traditions of documentary filmmaking, starting with Robert Flaherty's NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922); Thor Heyerdahl attempts to educate by retelling a real-life story using "actual" footage from his trek. There is also a noble purpose
behind the documentation: Heyerdahl uses the medium to prove a point to the Western establishment that rejected the idea primitive societies had the wherewithal to migrate extended distances.
Of course, both technology and sociology have advanced since KON- TIKI, leaving the onetime classic looking somewhat quaint. Even for a film of its day, KON-TIKI takes the odd approach of talking (through Heyerdahl's voice-over narration) more than showing action, including many potentially
exciting and dramatic shark attacks and the "worst moment of the whole voyage," the deadly ride through the coral reef. Perhaps, it was just too tough for the crew to shoot the camera while also trying to save their lives, but, in any event, KON-TIKI is made up mostly of grainy footage of the boat
bobbing and weaving. The frequent use of stop-motion during the shark and whale attacks seems almost like a postmodern stunt, especially as Heyerdahl inexplicably says, "we had no more chance of stopping a whale in its tracks than of stopping this film."
In some ways, the draining of suspense (and immediacy), which is antithetical to Flaherty, makes KON-TIKI more honest (or at least less manipulative) as a representation of reality. Though the Polynesian natives get slightly patronizing short shrift in the final reel, KON-TIKI attempts to honor
their culture more sincerely than most ethnographic studies of the period. For that reason alone, the film--like that trustworthy balsa wood raft--still holds up.
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- Rating: NR
- Review: The 1951 Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature, KON-TIKI, tells the story of a modern-day sailing expedition from South America to the Polynesian Islands. Though the film lacks dramatic impact, the heartfelt efforts by the sailor-filmmakers shine throu… (more)