Apr/May 2007 Reviews & Interviews

Toward the South Country

Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life
Directed by Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Image Entertainment. 2000. 71 min.

Film review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Buy now from Amazon! Eight years before Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack directed the classic 1933 movie King Kong (Cooper also being the producer) the two made their first movie together. The title by which it is generally known (there have been several variations) is Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life.

Cooper and Schoedsack had met another six years before that first project, while traveling to volunteer on the Polish side in the Russo-Polish War of 1919. Cooper had already served with the Georgia National Guard as part of General John Pershing's forces pursuing the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. He also had flown with the American forces during World War I, been shot down and interned as a German prisoner of war.

Schoedsack, meanwhile, had been pursuing a career as an adventurous cameraman. Following a stint as a movie cameraman, he entered the Signal Corp., during World War I, in the same capacity. After the war both he and Cooper gravitated toward the Polish relief effort where the latter had formed the Kosciuszko Squadron, a group of volunteer American fliers. It was in Vienna, the point of embarkation for the only surviving rail corridor into Poland at the time, that they met and began a life-long friendship.

The two only appear in a brief promo at the beginning of Grass. They are the film crew and document the travels of Marguerite Harrison as she proceeds from points west—possibly from Damascus—to the Anatolian Plateau, south of Ankara, Turkey, to join the "Forgotten People," the Bakhtiari, on their astonishing trek south to their summer grazing lands.

Harrison had lived every bit as colorful a life as her camera crewmen. She transferred from her position as Assistant Society Page Editor of the Baltimore Sun to the position of war correspondent. When refused permission to enter Europe in order to cover the war under an American passport she joined U. S. Military Intelligence and began a brief career as a combination journalist and spy.

It was in this capacity that she first met Cooper when his plane was once again shot down behind enemy lines. He was nearly starved, in a Russian Gulag, when Harrison mysteriously appeared and made arrangements to bring him food. After nine months, Cooper escaped, but Harrison, less fortunate, was imprisoned for more than two years while her wealthy Baltimore family worked for her release. The charge, in her case, was espionage.

After some years crewing a sailboat through the waters of Southeast Asia, reporting for the New York Times and doing research at the National Geographic Society headquarters in New York City, Cooper began to seek financial backing for a film project he and Schoedsack had conceived. The project was Grass. The only taker, it would seem, was his old acquaintance Harrison, and only on the condition that the film would feature her as an intrepid explorer seeking out the Bakhtiari and sharing their trek.

Grass begins, then, with Harrison's experiences on her way to the Bakhtiari winter grazing lands south of Ankara. She passes through a small 1924 Middle Eastern town where the children find her fascinating and everyone watches a muzzled bear-cub dance to a hurdy-gurdy. She shares a crumbling fortress with a passing caravan. We see her hosts cooking unleavened bread for breakfast and the camels snapping at unwary passersby.

As the party approaches the Taurus Mountains, they share yet another (even more) crumbling fortress with a group of hunters. In a particularly memorable scene, one of the hunters, single-shot flintlock in hand, and deploying a most remarkable form of camouflage, notices a mountain goat, a mere speck on a distant cliff. His single shot is all that is needed as the creature hurdles off the cliff into the brush below where it is lifted onto a shoulder and carried back to the fortress.

After a meal of goat-kabobs and a good night's rest Harrison next crosses the stark and snow laden mountains on horseback. She emerges on the other side to face the great expanse of "Arabia" which, in this film, refers to the desert approach to the Anatolia Plateau. She becomes the guest of the regional constabulary where "100 patrol a territory larger than Arizona." The desert police perform a drill for the camera, mounting their camels by stepping on the crooks of their necks and spinning into the saddle.

Already a great deal has happened even before Harrison reaches the Bakhtiari winter range. But, as fascinating as the film is throughout, nothing thus far can begin to compare to the drama of the 48-day annual migration of the 50,000 tribesman and their vast herds of hundreds of thousands of horses, donkeys, sheep, goats, bulls and cows.

The tribe has been making the journey for untold generations. As they approach the Karun River, coursing wildly east to west at the foot of the Zagros Mountains, they know the best place at which to cross, but still it requires six days of continual effort. The first wave is afforded the luxury of rafts lashed together and mounted on top of inflated goat skins. These are used to ferry the tribal leaders, elders, women, children and goats, none of which swims well enough to make it on their own. Each raft is swept rapidly downstream as two oarsmen struggle to make the far shore. Miles downstream they reach their goal and begin to populate a destination camp.

After them, wave after wave of men and animals enter the water. The men still have their responsibilities to their animals. They swim back and forth with all their might, buoyed by individual goatskin life-preservers, to keep their charges together and swimming for the far shore. They try to assist flagging animals so they will have the necessary strength to make the crossing. Here and there heads (generally of lambs) go under, and, no shepherd being near at hand, do not bob back up.

The crossing complete, the tribe and its herds next must climb the slopes of Zardeh Kuh, the highest mountain in the Zagros range. The summer grazing lands lie in a valley directly on the other side. The steep and craggy slopes would be a challenge even for a mountain goat but the Bakhtiari women climb them while carrying their young children lashed in cradles upon their backs. Some shoulder small donkeys over difficult stretches. Pack animals of every description, with chickens and other smaller animals tied atop their packs, are urged along tiny ledges in the rock face. As all descend the far slope, the journey is over. Schoedsack's final shot is a panoramic view of hundreds of thousands of men, women and animals pouring into the valley below.

Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life is a classic of the documentary film genre. The silent format is no disadvantage especially given the fact that the dialogue in the various scenes would have been spoken in Arabic and Luri. The sound track (recorded in 1991) is well conceived. Traditional music from each region is played in the background as it is visited. Cooper had the good judgment to be sparing with the title cards he spliced into the more dramatic sequences. Even with the outdated production quality, this is the equal of anything being done in the genre today.

In the Biblical book of Genesis it says of the Jewish/Arabic patriarch Abraham, the leader of a tribe of shepherds: "Abraham journeyed from thence toward the south country, and dwelled between Ka-desh and Shur, and sojourned in Ge-rar." It is not possible to understand this or any such passage until one has seen this surviving record of the journey of the Bakhtiari.


Note: The Image Entertainment DVD release of Grass also includes an extended 1965 tape-recorded interview with Merian C. Cooper.


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