Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack are most famous for their
1933 film King Kong. Before that influential movie though,
they started out making travel films, a popular genre of film that has
all but died out. These weren't documentaries per se, but fictional
stories that were set in remote corners of the world and integrated natives
and their local customs into the story. They were educational, and
also entertaining. The first two films that Cooper and Schoedsack
directed have been released by Milestone: Grass (1925) and Chang
(1927). This review discusses the former picture, and you can read
about the later one here.
When Cooper and Schoedsack set out for present day Iran, they
were looking for an adventure, and they found one. Accompanied by
journalist (and US spy) Marguerite Harrison, they found the Bakhtiari tribe
and recorded their twice yearly migration to pasture grounds for their
animals. (The 'grass' of the title.) This was no stroll either.
The tribe, 50,000 people and half a million animals, suffered many hardships
on the journey, and viewers marvel at their stamina and determination to
complete the migration. They have to cross rivers, up to half a mile
wide, on rafts buoyed with inflated goat skins and walk across a 15,000-foot
snow covered mountain. All in bare feet.
The path was often treacherous.
Note the man and goats on a narrow trail in the lower left corner.
This is an impressive movie, but there isn't a plot or much narrative
to it which may bore some viewers. I was amazed at the hardships
the natives faced, and was impressed that Cooper and Schoedsack accompanied
them. There were several times in the film when I thought to myself
"I'd turn around and go home if I were there." This is the story
of 'man verses nature' where nature sometimes wins. The journey certainly
takes its toll on the people and especially the animals.
This is a documentary, but shouldn't be confused with the modern definition
of the word. Cooper and Schoedsack had no qualms about staging
scenes or suggesting that the tribe take a more dramatic route, something
that wouldn't fly in a serious documentary today. Even so, this film
captures an event that took place for centuries, but has stopped now.
It is a very interesting anthropological document none the less.
One qualm I did have with the film is that the intertitles, trying to
be hip or amusing, really detracted from the feel of the film and only
served to remind the viewer that they are watching a film. It's a
small critique though, and shouldn't stop anyone who is interesting from
seeing this unique film.
The stereo soundtrack of traditional Iranian music fit the movie well.
Unfortunately it wasn't scene specific, but it did give help create the
right mood for the film and the performers were very good. The recording
was clear and there wasn't any hint of distortion or other audio defects.
The full frame video has been restored and looks good. The image
is generally clear and has a good amount of contrast, though some scenes
are faded a bit. The highlights are washed out in several places
and there are some scenes that have a lot of scratching but these are the
exception rather than the rule.
This film probably never looked outstanding, due to the strenuous filming
conditions. Cooper and Schoedsack only had enough film
stock to film sparingly, and they had to carry it all with them across
the desert. Not the best conditions for nitrate film. In any
case, this print looks better than it has any right to look.
This disc has a great extra: an audio only interview with Merrian C.
Cooper from 1965. Director and film scholar Rudy Behlmer talks with
Mr. Cooper for nearly an hour and forty minutes. Cooper talks
about his extremely interesting life and his films. The interview
meanders a little, but it's still very engrossing.
This film about the migration of a large tribe across Persia is amazing.
The things that these people had to go through in order to survive in a
hostile environment is just astounding. Since there wasn't a plot
necessarily, just a recording of the journey, some people may find it a
little on the slow side, but I thought it was fascinating. Recommended.