I saw a trailer online recently for a movie called Kon-Tiki, a dramatization of that time Thor Heyerdahl jumped on a raft and drifted from Peru to Polynesia just to prove a point. Science was so much cooler back then. “You don’t believe my theory? Well, I’m just going to build a raft and live on it for 100 days to show you how right I am.” Anyway, I was reading about the movie (which looks beautiful) and found out that Heyerdahl filmed his actual journey and made a documentary about it, which won an Oscar back in the day. I got a copy of the doc from the library and watched it.
I have never seen a doc from the 1950s before. It was surprisingly short – only an hour long for a doc about a 100+ day ocean voyage, not to mention the preparation and what came after. I wonder what happened to all that footage they didn't use? It was mostly silent footage of the voyage with a voice-over from, I assume, Heyerdahl. It sounded at times like an infomercial and the rest of the times like an educational film on prozac.
The description of how they built the boat was very interesting, and his descriptions of life on the boat were fascinating. I've never spent more than a week straight at sea and they were out there for 100 days on a raft. It is incredible how they designed it and lived on it together without killing each other. But the voice-over was too peppy. I doubt it was all sunshine and puppies between six men on a raft for 100 days. But it was all “life at sea was total freedom” and constantly talking about how wonderful and relaxing the days were, not how empty. I’m not saying that people can’t enjoy the solitude of the ocean, but at some point you need more mental stimulation than the endless waves. The voice-over was all, “Here is Lars writing notes in cuttlefish ink” and “Jens built a scale replica of the raft.” The unspoken preface to those sentences, based on my experience at sea, was “To keep from going insane…” The narrative was relentlessly happy, and it bothered me.
There were aspects of the film that disturbed me, mostly dealing with their treatment of sharks. To eat on the voyage, and to prove that it was possible to find food in the open ocean, they fished along the way. They also ate plankton from tows. They were followed by sharks occasionally and their shark policy was kill or be killed. Instead of leaving the sharks to see what they would do, when they spotted a shark they fished for it, so they could pull it on board and kill it. In one scene they lashed the shark to the deck and the voice-over said it trashed for upwards of 45 minutes. If you’re going to kill it for no reason then kill it. Don’t torture it first.
The scene that bothered me most was the whale shark. A whale shark surfaced near the raft. The narration called it a whale shark, so presumably they knew what it was, and presumably they knew it was a filter-feeder and not a man-eater. It’s a huge, beautiful, harmless (in terms of the probability that it will eat them) fish and they were concerned that it would topple the boat (“attack them with its tail” I think is how he expressed concern in the voice-over) so they harpooned the shark in the head. Is attacking the animal really a good way to get it to not topple you? The wounded shark dove and left them alone. I would like to point out that when whales were close to the raft – and also very likely to topple it – they didn't harpoon them.
Still an interesting movie, and I'm very interested to see the dramatisation and I wonder if, in some ways, it will be more truthful about the experience than the documentary. Although, the poster does imply the whale shark is still the villain. At least in the movie, the animal deaths will be fake.