Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"It's impossible to lose that awareness of what the sea can do."

Some people go to absurd lengths to raise funds for their documentaries. Others make documentaries to help fund their adventures. In the case of the Kon-Tiki, the adventure - crossing 5,000 miles of the Pacific Ocean on a balsa wood raft - was necessary in order to prove a scientific point. If they succeeded, the crew could prove that stone age people "saw the oceans not as barriers but as highways" and had it in their power to settle Polynesia from Peru. They could also win a bet guaranteeing them all the whisky they could ever drink.

Shot by amateurs in conditions often far from ideal, this film looks a lot better than one might expect. Narrated by Thor Heyerdahl himself, it benefits from the same infectious enthusiasm that enabled him to find a crew in the first place. Fascinated as he is by the historic secrets he uncovered in the process of crafting the raft, he makes the process of simply looking around it intensely engaging for the viewer. Out at sea, in the contracted world the raft represents, focus becomes tighter, details more important, and still we can believe him when he says "We were never really bored."

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Given the equipment they possessed. the crew's shots of the raft and its surroundings are impressive, often more visceral for their rough edges. Shots taken from a rubber dinghy trailing behind the raft on a rope really give us a sense of scale and of the size of the waves, even when the ocean is calm. When Heyerdahl talks about a storm that lasted for five days, we can imagine what the men must have gone through, and we become acutely aware of what we're not seeing. The camera can only capture so much, but images of the battered hut in which the men sleep are telling enough. Even as we hear about the pleasure of relaxing on the raft on calm days, we see the waves breaking against the sides with quite an impact and it's impossible to lose that awareness of what the sea can do.

Although it's a real shame the crew lacked underwater apparatus and colour film, so can't show us the vivid fish we're told about, but we do see quite a lot of other wildlife, including sharks, whales (still fairly new to cinemagoers in 1950) and the famous frigate bird that finally told the crew they were near land. Given the survival and narration of the film, the fate of the Kon-Tiki is never really in doubt, but the ride is thrilling all the same. The small scale of the film, so tightly restricted, makes us all the more aware of the epic scale of the adventure.

Reviewed on: 30 Jan 2014
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A documentary account of the voyage of the Kon-Tiki, made by its crew.
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Director: Thor Heyerdahl

Writer: Thor Heyerdahl

Starring: Thor Heyerdahl, Herman Watzinger, Erik Hesselberg, Knut Haugland, Torstein Raaby, Bengt Danielsson

Year: 1950

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: Sweden


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