From Amelia Earhart and Jimmy Hoffa to the stories that unfold nearly every week on "Dateline," mysterious disappearances have long held our fascination. But as mysteries go, the vanishing of Michael Rockefeller is particularly intriguing. The 23-year-old son of New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and an heir to the family's fortune was an anthropologist, photographer and primitive art collector who was on an expedition to coastal New Guinea with a Dutch anthropologist in 1961 when he disappeared without a trace after attempting to swim to shore from his capsized boat.
Did he drown, or meet a grislier fate at the hands of cannibal tribes? Or could he be alive somewhere in the jungle? The documentary "The Search for Michael Rockefeller" aims to answer these questions by following evidence, eyewitness accounts and the late journalist and author Milt Machlin's 1968 expedition in search of the truth. Written, directed, produced and narrated by Fraser C. Heston, the film weaves archival footage, interviews and personal correspondence to tell the story. The film debuts on Netflix on Feb. 1.
Heston, who made his film debut in 1955 as the infant Moses — a character more notably played by his father Charlton as an adult in "The Ten Commandments" — has written, produced and directed features and documentaries for film and television, including "Treasure Island," "A Man for All Seasons" and "Needful Things." He explains why he had to reopen this particular missing persons case.
MNN: How and when did you hear about this story?
Fraser C. Heston: The disappearance of Michael Rockefeller is one of the most compelling unsolved mysteries of the 20th century. Until now! I first came across "The Search for Michael Rockefeller," the fascinating 1972 best-selling book by Milt Machlin, in the early 2000s. It's a great classic adventure and explores the disappearance and possible fate of Rockefeller in New Guinea in 1961, and Machlin's epic search for him eight years later (based on a reliable eyewitness report that Michael was being held against his will by natives on an island off New Guinea). We optioned the rights to it and began to develop a screenplay based on Milt's book for a feature film.
What compelled you to make the movie?
Milt remarks in the book that he took two 16mm cameras and 10,000 feet of film (along with cinematographer Jim Anderson) to New Guinea on his search for Michael. But no trace of this film could be found. I contacted Milt's widow, Margaret Machlin, who was incredibly helpful to us, and asked her if she had any idea what happened to the film, or where the negative might be. She replied that Milt never edited or completed the film. It had been given to a stock footage house to sell bits and pieces to other filmmakers for various documentaries, but she had lost track of the stock company, which had gone out of business. I set about tracking it down, and found it in a warehouse in New England, where it had lain dormant, gathering dust for the last 40 years.
In about 2008, I received three large boxes of 16mm film at my office in Hollywood. It was Milt's New Guinea footage — 15 reels of it! Incredible footage of Asmat cannibals with bones in their noses, natives wearing nothing but skulls and Asmat armadas of war canoes charging across the screen. Fantastic! I thought. I have a movie in a box. I contacted our editor Ted Hughes; we thought it would take us maybe six months to edit this lost footage into a film. Two and a half years later, we were still editing.
What was your approach going in?
First, I wanted to tell the story of two men on similar journeys, both physical and metaphysical: Michael's journey and Milt's journey. They end up in different places, and they are different men, but very similar in many ways as well. Both were serious about what they did. Neither were dilettantes. Milt's job on his expedition was to either find Michael or find out what happened to him. He did not find Michael, but what he did find was a great story.
Did anything change along the way as you assembled the story?
The most startling revelation was the shot I discovered that we call "Big Michael," the shot of the naked white guy in the canoe, who looks startlingly like Michael Rockefeller. As I say in the film, it may not be Michael, but if it's not, who the hell is it? It's another layer of the onion that surrounds the truth about Michael Rockefeller. No one has seen this shot before now — possibly not even Milt.
Did you have the cooperation and access to archive footage, letters, Michael's journals? Cooperation of the Rockefellers?
We had no cooperation from the Rockefellers or any participation, but we had complete access to all of Machlin's copious archives, notes, photos, letters, journals, diaries, etc., all provided by Margaret. It was in Milt's cramped study in his old apartment on Washington Square in Greenwich Village that I found nine reels of 1/4 sound tapes, including the shocking interview with Father Cornelius Van Kessel — something the world had never seen or heard before.
What were your biggest challenges?
The biggest challenge by far was editorial: firstly, sorting out, collating, logging and cross-referencing thousands of feet of film, all of it chopped up and put back together again in random order with no slates, no sync marks, no sync sound and very few specific references to footage shot on a given day, time and place in Milt's rather haphazard notes. Secondly, of course, it was finding the story in there somewhere. With so much material, how to hone it down and find a dramatic arc? I knew we had a film — the trick was to find what the story was and how to tell it. But it always is!
You raise many theories. What do you think happened to Michael?
I find the cumulative (albeit circumstantial) evidence given by Father Van Kessel and several other missionaries that Michael was killed in revenge (misplaced though it may have been) for killings perpetrated by the Dutch gunboat patrol several years earlier, to be the most compelling of all the possible scenarios of Michael's fate — notwithstanding the shot of the white man in the canoe at the end of the film who looks disturbingly like Michael Rockefeller! As Van Kessel says, "The truth is evil. He reached the shore and he fell just into the hands of Death ... they just had to kill a white man and it just happened to be Michael Rockefeller. It is a sad story and it is a pity but it is the truth." But what of Big Michael, the shot of the white guy in the canoe? Well, as they say in the film: "You're not in the world now, mate — you're in New Guinea!"
Fraser Heston used Milt Machlin's book and unedited footage to chronicle the journalist's search for the missing Rockefeller.
Do you think it will remain a mystery?
I think to a large extent we have solved it. Or Milt solved it in 1972. Carl Hoffman, in his book "Savage Harvest" (2014) claimed to have solved the mystery for the first time. This of course is specious nonsense. Milt Machlin solved it in 1972, and published his findings in both Argosy magazine and in his book "The Search for Michael Rockefeller" and in his film footage 42 years before! Except for that shot of the white guy in the canoe who looks suspiciously like Michael...
Have members of the Rockefeller family seen it?
Not unless they attended a film festival. If they have a Netflix subscription they can watch it on Feb. 1 or after. Clearly the Rockefellers are sick to death of this subject and would be much happier if it would just go away — understandably so, perhaps. However Michael died, it was in unpleasant circumstances. The "softest death he may have had was death by drowning" as we say in the film. Who Michael was as a person — son, brother, friend, photographer, anthropologist, art collector, explorer — gets lost in the sensational nature of his death. How many sons of vice presidents of the United States and one of the richest families in the world were probably killed and eaten by cannibals?
What's next for you?
My next film is a feature version of "The Search for Michael Rockefeller" called "Ghosts of New Guinea." We are just finishing up the script for and hope to shoot in Australia next year.
Also on the front burner is a family film about a young girl in a small village in Alaska who wants to run the Iditarod dog-sled race, called "Aurora." After that it's back to the macabre with the real-life story of the severed human feet washing up on the shores of British Columbia, called "Desolation Sound." Lots of great stories out there, and only one lifetime to tell them in!
Related on MNN:
- 15 people who may have mysteriously disappeared
- 9 of our favorite last-at-sea movies
- Would you survive being lost at sea? Take the quiz