#508) Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925)

#508) Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925)

OR “The Iranian Trail”

Directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

Written by Richard P. Carver & Terry Ramsaye

Class of 1997 

Here’s a modern trailer for the film

The Plot: Eight years before they gave us filmdom’s quintessential stop-motion ape, Merian Cooper & Ernest Schoedsack – along with adventurous socialite Marguerite Harrison- gave us a real-life story of the Middle East, and one of the first documentary features in American film. “Grass” chronicles the Bakhtiari (often referenced here as “The Forgotten People”) of Persia as they migrate from the arid summer heat to literally greener pastures. Led by Haidar Khan, the tribe spends 48 days migrating with thousands of people and animals. Cooper, Schoedsack and Harrison document all the tribulations, including the crossing of the Karun River, and the scaling of Zard Kuh, one of the highest peaks in the Middle East.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a brief run-down, calling the film “[o]ne of the earliest ethnographic documentaries”. A more detailed appreciation for “Grass” comes from the accompanying essay by Denis Doros, co-founder of Milestone Films, which currently owns the rights to “Grass”.

But Does It Really?: While not on anyone’s shortlist of greatest documentaries, “Grass” stands on a unique piece of ground in what it’s presenting and how it’s being presented. While I don’t care for the film’s constant exoticizing of Persian (now Iranian) culture, this is definitely a story worth telling. The adventure Cooper, Schoedsack and Harrison had to get this movie made is just as exciting as the adventure they’re recording. A yes for “Grass” and its NFR induction.

Shout Out?: Some sources state that Cooper and Schoedsack were inspired to make the film after seeing “Nanook of the North“, while other sources say the two were unaware of the film’s existence until after they returned from filming in Persia. 

Everybody Gets One: Marguerite Harrison was born into Maryland’s social elite, but as an adult defied convention by marrying a man without money. After her husband’s sudden death, Harrison became a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. During the first World War, women were not allowed to be war correspondents, so Harrison used a connection in the War Department to enlist as a spy, even serving 10 months in a Russian prison! During the war, Harrison met Merian C. Cooper, then a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force, and years later helped fund and produce “Grass”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the geography. Angora (where they start their journey) is now Ankara, Turkey, and the Bakhtiari land in Persia is now the Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province of Iran.

Other notes 

  • “Grass” came about when Schoedsack and Cooper were looking for a project to work on that would give them the kind of adventure they had during the war. With Marguerite Harrison, the trio traveled to Turkey with the intention of filming the Kurdish people of then-Upper Mesopotamia . When that footage was deemed unsatisfactory, Harrison had her friend, the archaeologist Gertude Bell, introduce them to the Bakhtiari tribe. After months of negotiations and trust-gaining, the Bakhtiari agreed to let Cooper, Schoedsack and Harrison join and film their journey, making them the first non-Bakhtiari to make the trek.
  • Historian Terry Ramsaye was brought in to write the intertitles, and is clearly having fun giving the trip an epic, poetic description. For the record, Marguerite Harrison hated these intertitles, calling them “old-fashioned and hokey”.
  • Right out the gate I got problems with this movie’s emphasis on colonization. The opening title cards state that “the way of the world is west” and specifically mentions Aryans. Uh-oh.
  • The first part of the film is the journey from Angora to the Bakhtiari, which involves its own set of hurdles, including a sandstorm. All in all, this film isn’t so much a documentary as it is a travelogue. It’s like someone found the dramatic core of your vacation slides.
  • Once again, the key to a good movie is always include a puppy, even if it’s just for a second.
  • Easily the most impressive segment of the film is the Karun River crossing. Watching these people travel down the river with only the supplies on their backs is simply incredible. My one question: How are they filming this? If I find out that Cooper and Schoedsack had a motorboat this whole time…
  • Speaking of, it turns out Schoedsack’s trip was a bit more harrowing than Cooper’s or Harrison’s. At the end of each day, Schoedsack would travel ahead of the migration and plan out the next day’s shoot, meaning that he typically faced each of these hardships before everyone else.
  • Someone is clearly having fun with these intertitles. Shots of the sheep being prepared to cross the Karun are accompanied by several animated “Baa!” intertitles. The actual crossing by the sheep features the commentary “Every where that Mary went…”
  • If this film were made today it would be a NatGeo documentary narrated by…I’m gonna say Shohreh Aghdashloo.
  • The film’s finale is an almost vertical climb by the Bakhtiari up and over Zard-Kuh to their final destination. Once again, the intertitles emphasize the extreme conditions: “Barefoot! Barefoot through the snow!” This intertitle sounds like it was written by my grandparents.
  • The group’s arrival to the titular grass is worth the wait, especially that wide shot with the entire migration in a long, winding line that stretches seemingly forever.
  • I can’t get over that this migration took 48 days! And they did this every year! The river crossing alone took three days!

Legacy 

  • Upon completion, “Grass” played the lecture circuit, with Cooper providing live narration. A presentation at a private dinner party caught the eye of Paramount executive Jesse Lasky, who bought the distribution rights. “Grass” became one of the few non-fiction films of the era with a studio-backed wide distribution.
  • In additon to “King Kong”, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack would go on to give us future NFR entry “This Is Cinerama”. What I wouldn’t give to see the Bahktiari make their journey in color, sound, and a curved widescreen.
  • While Marguerite Harrison never made another film, she went on to found both the Society of Women Geographers and the Children’s Hospital of Baltimore.
  • The Bahktiari still exist, though like so much of Iranian culture, much of their practices were upturned following the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  While a small population of Bakhtiari still make this annual migration, trucks are used to transport the livestock.
  • According to his son Lufta, Haidar Khan died of yellow fever one year after the events of “Grass”.
  • There have been a few other films that attempted to document the Bakhtiari trek, including 1973’s “The Ascent of Man” and 1976’s “People of the Wind”.

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