Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky thinks Merian C. Cooper would beat you in an arm-wrestling match.
"Yo Ali!"—Celebratory cry of the Bakhtiari tribe
In all the justifiable hype surrounding King Kong in recent months as a triumph of special effects, one curious story is almost forgotten. Never mind the giant ape. The real larger-than-life character in King Kong is Carl Denham. It may seem far fetched to some viewers that a globe-trotting would-be filmmaker would sail to some lost island to play great white hunter, then race back to New York and out-Barnum the best showmen.
But Carl Denham was real. He was a reporter, an adventurer, an aviator, and a pioneer in cinema technology. His real name was Merian C. Cooper. Yes, the co-director of King Kong was the model for its most flamboyant character. Merian C. Cooper was not just an innovative filmmaker. He made Robert Ripley look like a shut-in.
Cooper's first production, and his first collaboration with Ernest B. Shoedsack (his partner in crime for Kong), was characteristic of his sense of adventure. After a stint as a wartime pilot (and prisoner of war) and newspaper reporter, Cooper, fascinated with the possibility of film, decided to march across the plains and over the mountains of Persia for hundreds of miles in order to shoot the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe, called the "Forgotten People" in the film. Cooper had only seen half a dozen films himself, but he approached his material from the perspective of a journalist.
The first intertitle casts Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life as shared anthropology: "how our forefathers, the Aryans of old, rose remote in Asia and began conquest of earth…We are part of that great migration." But the first images of the film are the faces of Cooper, Shoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison (former spy turned journalist). For Cooper to put himself on camera, to show that he was part of the journey too, was par for the course. Remember, this was the guy who would later show himself flying the plane that shot down Kong. Most documentatians avoid becoming part of the spectacle. Not Cooper. Admittedly, Cooper stays behind the camera for the remainder of Grass, allowing Harrison to play Ann Darrow to the tribesman.
The Bakhtiari travel with everything. Women cradle children on their backs. Tents are not unrolled until the end of the journey. Thousands of nomads and millions of people. They cross a river on homemade rafts. They scale a mountain pass 15,000 feet up. All in search of grass to pasture the flock. Sandstorms, hunting in the mountains, marching barefoot through the snow—Cooper and company detail nomadic life. We meet desert police (and party at the policeman's ball) and suffer the hardships of the Bakhtiari. If all you know about life in this region before the modern, oil-soaked era comes from Lawrence of Arabia, you need to see this document of a Persian life long lost.
Grass is a documentary with authentic flavor, although the intertitles do get a little sensational now and again. The crossing of the Karun River, for example, is particularly emphatic. We also never get to know the Bakhtiari as individuals. Cooper shows the customs of the caravan traders and the desert police, but most of what we see of the Bakhtiari is footage of marching, marching, marching. Who are they? Why are they a "forgotten people?" What do they do, other than march? We rarely get close-ups of their faces or really learn what they are like. Cooper captures the reality of life among the nomads, but his next film, Chang, would begin to reveal the humanity of the strange people captured by his camera.
The Milestone Collection, leader in preserving cinema history, has these two seminal Cooper films now available on DVD. (We will look at Chang in a separate review.) Grass, Cooper's debut, is backed by an Iranian score rather than the usual Hollywood orchestral music. It is a great choice. There is only one supplemental feature though. Historian Rudy Behlmer interviewed Merian C. Cooper in 1965. The 99 minute recording is offered in its entirety (an index would have been nice though). Cooper relates a host of colorful anecdotes from throughout the course of his film career. Alongside Behlmer's commentary track on the Chang disc, you get a fairly complete picture of Cooper's early film career. And if you are interested in Merian C. Cooper at all, then you almost certainly have a copy of King Kong (and its new documentary on Cooper) to fill in the rest.
At the end of Grass, Merian C. Cooper proudly shows off the affidavit proving that the crew made the 48-day journey. So is this story about the trials of the Bakhtiari—or the trials of Cooper, Shoedsack, and Harrison? In the end, Cooper knew that he was as fascinating a character as anything he could find. And isn't selling yourself just part of the show? Carl Denham would be proud.
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