B.G. Hilton – Writer

In Search Of… S02E06 Michael Rockefeller

In this series we’ve seen episodes on Bigfoot, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle. This week we look at: Michael Rockefeller.

That’s a little underwhelming, isn’t it?

Some nice woodwork. That's not a joke or anything. It really is.
Some nice woodwork. That’s not a joke or anything. It really is.

One quick look at Wikipedia later: Michael Rockefeller was a member of the wealthy and politically connected Rockefeller family. I know that the conspiracy minded make a big deal of the Rockefellers in general, but I’m guessing Michael is interesting because he vanished in 1961 in what’s now part of Indonesia. Wikipedia suggests that he probably drowned, but his body was never recovered.

Let’s see what In Search Of… makes of this.

We open on a ceremony of the Asmat people of the Indonesian controlled area of New Guinea. This area attracted ‘a restless young man’ named Michael Rockefeller. Nimoy assures us that the Asmat are primitive, superstitious and warlike. Ah, the 70s! Rockefeller (who looks like a huge nerd in his photos) went to their territory to study and learn, but vanished in their midst.

Okay, so far so… well, so far so kinda racist, I guess. Now we’re at Harvard in 1960, where Nelson Rockefeller, then Governor of New York and future Vice President of the USA was watching his youngest child, Michael, graduate. After university, Michael went off to New Guinea as part of an anthropological expedition. After he finished his work, he set off to meet the Asmat people and traveled with them for a time. Rockefeller apparently loved the countryside and the people.

There are some very nice photos, apparently taken by Michael himself. The narration is as patronising as you might expect. Then there’s some more recent footage of the Asmat, showing them building canoes. It’s pretty awesome. Nimoy says that the Asmat don’t believe in death by natural causes. Either they are killed by enemies, or evil spirits. Don’t know if that’s true, but I mention it because I suspect that they might be going somewhere with this.

Michael Rockefeller loved Asmat woodcarving, which he collected. Nimoy claims that it is ‘amongst the best woodcarving in the primitive world.’ Pause for a shudder… and we’re done. More footage of Asmat canoes. Michael amassed a collection of carvings, often traveling alongside missionaries and anthropologists.

In 1961, he went up the coast with Dutch anthropologist Rene Wassing and some guides. The boat he was on was underpowered for the local currents. The boat overturned. The guides swam for help while Michael and Wassing clung to the boat. Fearing that the guides would not return, Michael swam for help himself. The guides did make it, and alerted the authorities who set up a search. Nimoy gives a wonderfully Gothic description of the dangers to be found in the area, but the upshot is Wassing was found and Michael was not. There’s even some newsreel footage of Wassing looking pessimistic.

Cut to footage of Governor Rockefeller. Rockefeller went to the Asmat region. More patronising stuff about how overwhelmed the natives are. Newsreel footage of the search — by air, by canoe and by a bunch of Asmat guys literally beating the bushes.

We’re halfway through the episode, and all it’s told me is what the Wikipedia article did. Just longer. Much longer. It better get silly from here.

Oooh! Spooky music! Speculation that in the jungle, Michael was alive! Let’s get to it.

Aerial footage of New York. Nimoy proclaims it ‘New York, 1968,’ except that I can see the towers of the World Trade Centre, dating the footage to 1973 at the earliest. We are shown a picture magazine editor Milt Machlin, who looks kind of like an overweight Groucho Marx. Machlin was given a tip by a weird guy that Michael was still alive. Most people would ignore something like that. Since Machlin’s two other notable achievements were coining the phrases ‘Bermuda Triangle’ and ‘Abominable Snowmen’, he was just the journalist that was needed, what with Karl Kolchak not being available.

Machlin set off on the trail. There’s some interesting footage of him being taken upriver on a beautifully carved Asmat canoe. Then he went off to the island that he was told to go to. You know what? This episode is really slow. Other episodes will summarise three thousand years of human history in two minutes. This one is drawing everything out forever.

Machlin wades onto the island. Nimoy assures us that the island was a paradise, but also creepy. No sign of Michael, just an old abandoned hut. Now, Nimoy is standing in front of a world map in an echoey room. What gives? Is he in a classroom or something? Couldn’t they find a map for the studio? He tells us that Machlin didn’t give up his holiday search, but kept on looking until a Dutch missionary who told him that Rockefeller may have been caught and killed by members of one particular Asmat tribe.

The leader of this tribe is interviewed and denies it.

Nimoy claims that cultural differences mean that this matter can never be settled. I don’t know. I think —

‘So, you kill him?’


Is as close as you’re going to get to universal.

Now we’re watching an Asmat ceremony in honour of the dead, for some reason. Members of neighbouring villages are ritually adopted, but will be the first to die if intertribal hostilities break out. So hostages, basically? Where are we going with this?

More footage of the ceremony. It’s more interesting than speculating about what happened to someone who clearly died at sea. Nimoy talks about how headhunting has been outlawed. Nimoy wonders whether Michael Rockefeller’s fondness for the Asmat was part of some personal quest of his own. Yeah, probably. He was a super-rich twenty-something Ivy League boy, trying to get out of the bubble he was raised in, but only really able to connect with other cultures by acquiring other people’s stuff. It’s tragic enough, even without the poor slob dying.

Cut to Nelson Rockefeller talking at a news conference. I don’t know much about Nelson Rockefeller, but the footage is heartbreaking. I’m not going to look him up on Wikipedia. I’ll probably just end up hating him, and right now I don’t really feel like that.

Nimoy sums up, talking about the decline of the Asmat culture. Footage of Asmat people, one last talk about how sad it is that their culture is dying that still manages to sound patronising. The end.

This one is not very interesting. It brings up a mystery, but actually suffers it to be solved. Poor guy died. End of story. No ghosts and goblins need apply. Even Nimoy seems a little off his game.

The story itself is sad without being particularly interesting. What makes this episode work is the footage of the Asmat people, their land, and their art, which really is quite impressive. Beyond that, what’s the moral?

Rich people die too?

I suppose that there are worst morals.


Meh. Nothing cool this episode either. That’s two in a row, and the next episode is about hurricanes, so I don’t hold high hopes for it.

Summing up

Footage of Asmat country/people: 8/10, Compelling story: 2/10, Nimoyness: 3/10, Music: 2/10, Woodwork: 9/10. Overall: 24/50. Fail

3 thoughts on “In Search Of… S02E06 Michael Rockefeller

  1. Interestingly enough, it appear more and more likely that Michael DID in fact get killed, and cannibalized. Now, clearly this is from a book. And the point of writing a book is to sell books. Does that automatically mean the book is BS? Well… that’s up to the reader. But seeing as I just viewed this episode of IN SEARCH OF…, I thought I’d share this link.
    BTW, I get a real kick out of your reviews.

  2. That’ interesting. I’ll look into that if I have the time — kind of snowed under at the moment, which is why my posts are so irregular lately.

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