Kon-Tiki stands out as the most internationally successful and popular documentary ever produced by the Scandinavian film industry. Its box office success and 1951 Academy Award ensured this spectacular and risky sea crossing, a reenactment of a prehistoric voyage, would be seen around the world. In 1947, Thor Heyerdahl and five crewmembers covered the 8000 kilometres of ocean between Peru and a Polynesian island on a balsa raft that was constructed almost entirely without the benefit of modern tools, ropes, or nails. Heyerdahl undertook this voyage to prove his theory that prehistoric white people, who had initiated the great civilizations of the Americas, had sailed on to Polynesia. Basing his theory on pseudoscientific studies on “race” developed by writers like Arthur de Gobineau in the 19th century and further elaborated by the eugenicist movement of the early 20th, Heyerdahl proposed a constitutive link between whiteness and civilization. To bolster his argument, he interwove it with idiosyncratic interpretations of myths from the Americas and Polynesia. The Kon-Tiki project was designed to explore “non-western myths”, but the supposed verification provided by the expedition was based on colonial preconceptions, which were themselves expressions of racist and mythical assumptions of whiteness. The project also provided a new narrative that enshrined the event, including the word “Kon-Tiki”, in popular post-war culture.
In this chapter, we argue that the Kon-Tiki as a historical expedition and a film deserves renewed attention beyond merely Norwegian film history. Most importantly, it reveals a transnational production history that in compelling ways yields new insights into the expedition film as media culture, screen event, and intercultural narrative in the post-war era. In the following chapter, we propose a critical reassessment of the Kon-Tiki to illuminate some historiographic aspects of myth and myth-making, and to look more closely at the international interests, transnational influences, and media technologies involved in how Heyerdahl created this narrative.