I Am Birdman, Hear Me Roar
The author on Rano Kau.
Credit: Joshua Paul
The Birdman stuck in my craw. The very word Orongo resounded like a gong in my brain, going, "Do it! Do it!" It was as if, having rashly spoken, I'd been cursed by Make Make to return and confront the cliffs of Rano Kau and the sharks of Motu Nui, or face life as a komari – which is to say, a big pussy.

What frustrated especially was that, despite the fear factor, the Birdman race combined two of my favorite activities: a kind of advanced beachcombing/rock scrambling/putzing around rugged coastlines, and battling out to sea through pounding surf, which I'm far more capable of than actually surfing. I'm something of an anthropology buff as well, happy to plod through a tome like Tristes Tropiques or The Golden Bough, pondering mankind's eternal quest to please itself while propitiating the great and vengeful Unknown.

I nursed my case of coulda-shoulda-wouldas at the library and on the Web, battening down the basics I'd learned on the tour. Easter Island is famous for three things: its remote location, about equidistant from Tahiti and Chile (which governs the island) and smack in the middle of a peculiarly vacant expanse of Pacific; its monumental statuary, the giant stone-head moai (much better known than the etched petroglyphs on Orongo); and the man-made environmental disaster of imprudent arboreal harvesting that rendered the island treeless three centuries ago, as it practically is to this day.

It was a near miracle the ancient Polynesians found the speck, but once they arrived, circa a.d. 400 to 600, they never left and entertained no visitors for a thousand years, providing anthropology a kind of petri dish of human culture in isolation. Without the benefits of contact with other peoples – some Other to learn from, someone foreign to fight – how weird can we get?

In their solitude, the Rapa Nui developed a monomania for statue carving, a craze they ultimately could not control. They erected hundreds of moai on seaside altars, each an Ozymandias facing inland and glaring at the mortals. Hundreds more completed moai accumulated at the principal quarry, awaiting delivery. Though they never exhausted their enthusiasm for honoring aristocrats, the Rapa Nui did run out of lumber to make log rollers, having cut down all the island's trees for the enterprise, and the moai bubble burst. Soon thereafter it was Mad Max time, the ecology buggered, society in shambles, the moai all knocked down by angry mobs, half the people hiding in caves, the other half hunting them with rocks. Out of the chaos of cannibalism and chicken hoarding arose the Birdman, a brightly feathered phoenix of hope, a last chance to get their mana back.

In hopes of getting a little of my own mana back, I read everything I could find, highbrow and low, from the accounts of the seafaring explorers to the sardonic lyrics of "Oh Bring Back the Egg Unbroken," by the cello combo Rasputina (very likely the only song in English about the Birdman cult). Given its schlock wattage of orgy and disaster, plus ready-made drama of a death race, the Birdman seemed like catnip for Hollywood. And indeed, while on Easter Island, I'd seen weather-beaten Rapa Nui movie posters flaking off of telephone poles in Hanga Roa, the most remote community on Earth and the only place where the film had been a hit. Roger Ebert had praised it, tongue in cheek, for the gratuitous National Geographic–style topless women, but my Leonard Maltin compendium dismissed it with one and a half stars. Netflix didn't have it. I phoned around to my local stores, and a nearby Blockbuster told me it had 13 copies. Excellent! But when I showed up, it turned out the clerk thought I'd meant Ratatouille. I should've taken that as a sign of absurdities to come.

Instead, I ordered a Korean bootleg online, and a few days later watched the American auteur Kevin Reynolds, of Waterworld fame, crush a thousand years of Rapa Nui history into a 107-minute love story. For the amateur Rapa Nui-ist, anachronisms abound. The movie has everything happening at once, opening with a soaring bird's-eye view of Orongo and then panning to a colossal moai being wastefully hauled on log rollers. There was the fat dyspeptic king with long fingernails saying, "Nah! Make it bigger!" On, lickety-split, to the chopping down of the last tree, leading man Jason Scott Lee screaming the inevitable "Nooo!" And the climax of the film, as it surely had to be: the Birdman race, pitting the hero, Mr. Lee, an aristocratic "long ear," against his blue-collar "short ear" nemesis, played by Esai Morales.

To my delight, I watched the competitors eschew the deadly cliff for the chicken route, scampering along the thin ridge of the crater rim down to the saddle that Nicolas had pointed out. The movie Birdman racers carried paddleboards of woven reeds on shoulder straps (accurate, according to some accounts), and although one dude was hip-checked to a fatal fall and another slid some hundreds of feet, shredding his reed board, the scramble looked eminently doable. I also suspected that our guide had cadged a good bit of his account from the movie, an irony I found somehow uplifting.