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Two silent Expedition Documentaries by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Two separate disc releases
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Anticipating the renewed interest in adventurers / filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, Milestone Video have reissued their impressive silent 'expeditionary documentaries Grass and Chang. Anyone curious enough to wonder about what kind of men made King Kong will find the answers here - this pair of determined zealots are a testament to the very spirit of adventurism.

Grass and Chang are from 1925 and 1927 but have little in common with other travelogues or 'true nature' stories of the time, with faked African adventures being cooked up in the wilds of Culver City or Griffith Park. Cooper and Schoedsack were veterans of journalism and fighting in WW1 and the succeeding war between Poland and the new Soviet Union. When it came to recording exotic customs in foreign lands, they always stuck to the truth. This commitment to higher values put them way ahead of most other documentarians of the time, and many from our time as well.

Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life
Street Date March 28, 2000 / 29.99
1925 / 1:37 flat full frame / B&W / 71 min

Starring Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, Marguerite Harrison, Haidar Khan, Lufta
Cinematography Merian C. Cooper, Marguerite Harrison, Ernest B. Schoedsack
Film Editor Richard Carver, Terry Ramsaye
Original Music Hugo Riesenfeld
Written by Richard Carver, Terry Ramsaye
Produced and Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Grass is a first person account of the Bakhtiari tribe of what is now Iran and their epic migration to greener pastures high over inaccessible Asian mountains. Cooper, Schoedsack and their partner Mrs.Marguerite Harrison accompanied the Bakhtiari on the trail, recording amazingly beautiful hand-cranked silent movie footage of the entire trip. Except for a couple of portrait shots at the beginning, the filmmakers don't appear. Harrison is a main character in a long traveling segment from Turkey to Iran by camel route, and then our attention transfers to the Bakhtiari chieftain Haidar Khan and his son Lufta.

The nomads strike their tents and herd tens of thousands of domesticated goats, horses, sheep and cows over what we can see for ourselves is an impossible trail. It takes days to cross a broad, swiftly-flowing river, floating women and children over on rafts made of inflated goatskins. Everyone else, including the animals, just piles into the water to be swept downstream through rapids. It's difficult to believe that anyone survives.

The second half of the journey involves lugging the entire nation up a mountain that the goats have difficulty climbing. It's a thrilling thing to watch and contemplate as the lines of people stretch for miles up mountain switchbacks. The filmmakers have a faultless eye for good camera angles.

Most amazing is that the movie was made by only three people without much in the way of outside help. They trekked along with the Bakhtiari while taking care of their cameras and film supplies. Early episodes show some meals and other customary details of the tribesmen but the focus is on the big picture - to survive the nation must migrate and everything else is of secondary concern.

Grass is a practically a self-invented documentary. Minor events are posed and directed but it doesn't matter as nothing extraordinary is being recorded - little Lufta would indeed probably pack his father's water pipe onto a pack animal. Cooper and Schoedsack take time out to record cute animal behaviors or to simply note their presence. The intertitles make simple jokes but are completely free of expected patronizing or critical attitudes. The filmmakers may not have the deepest anthropological insights about their subjects, but they obviously respect them. The film ends with a shot of a signed declaration of Chief Haidar Khan and a regional colonial bureaucrat stating that the filmmakers' journey with the Bakhtiari was real.

Milestone's DVD of Grass is accompanied by an interesting middle-Asian musical score. There's also a priceless series of audio interviews with Merian C. Cooper made by Rudy Behlmer in 1965 that span a wide part of his lengthy career in adventurism both abroad and in the movie business.

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness
1927 / B&W / 69 min.
Starring Kru, Chantui, Nah, Ladah, Bimbo the Monkey
Street Date November 21, 2000 / 29.99
Cinematography Ernest B. Schoedsack
Original Music Hugo Riesenfeld
Written by Achmed Abdullah, Merian C. Cooper
Produced and Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

The enormously popular Chang was made under much different conditions. Instead of going on a trek with nomads, Cooper and Schoedsack created a story around the daily lives of some jungle farmers in the wilds of Thailand. Almost everything in the movie is staged but it still has the basic ring of truth, as the filmmakers fashion events from reality instead of imposing events and characterizations on their subject.

Milestone's DVD this time around has the distinct advantage of an excellent commentary by Rudy Behlmer, who reviews the astounding careers of Cooper and Schoedsack and the amazing conditions under which Chang was filmed. On a handshake from his Hollywood backer, the two of them set out for Thailand and then headed up to regions then still mostly inaccessible, where only a few outsiders had ever been. They stayed for over a year fashioning their drama using local help and their own limitless ingenuity. Just the story of how they kept their cameras and film from instantly rotting in the heat and mildew of the jungle elicits a "gee whiz" reaction, and from there the adventure only gets wilder.

In addition to episodes documenting everyday life (Schoedsack's main interest) the film takes in two grand dramas (Cooper's forte), a hunt for man-killing jungle cats and a wild elephant stampede. Working from blinds, they capture some truly frightening shots of huge tigers coming down to the water to drink. The lenses aren't telephoto, letting us know that they were very close to their subjects. They staged various attacks and chases by capturing cats and letting them out of cages when the cameras were running but we're barely aware of the trickery. The basic truth of the situation is that the two filmmakers must have been calmly cranking away while threatened by deadly animals not eight or ten feet distant. The film's most famous shot is a down angle from a tree as a tiger leaps up and climbs right into our faces, and it must have been a shocker in 1925. Schoedsack not only didn't stop cranking, he had the presence of mind to pull focus as the animal practically licks the lens. It's pretty amazing.

The second major climax is an elephant stampede, a scene too complicated to capture naturally that was staged with elephants already in the Thai royal corral. But the dramatic angles and cutting sensibility show Cooper and Schoedsack capable of handling action logic as complicated as any being filmed at the time. The sequence is no less exciting now than it was then.

Fans of King Kong will have a lot to think about while watching these shows; Cooper and Schoedsack are somewhat like Kong's Carl Denham but with major differences. They obviously saw the Denham character as an exaggerated and crass self-portrait, but possessed of their zeal to distinguish themselves by bringing back amazing jungle adventures. Unlike Denham, the real filmmakers showed respect and consideration for the people they visited and documented, and they didn't bring along a retinue of helpers ... and Marguerite Harrison didn't qualify as the Ann Darrow type. They also stayed true to a pact to respect all the local customs of the natives, stay clear of the women (wisdom, surely) and leave things as they found them. That's quite different from Carl Denham, who brings chaos and destruction to Skull Island just so he can have a prize to exhibit back on Broadway.

Kong fans will also note familiar bits of business like a woman grabbing up a forgotten baby just before the elephant stampede catches up with it. It's easy to imagine the two successful filmmakers doing well but getting bored back at RKO, and then seeing Willis O'Brien's magical movie effects. The expeditions they could no longer take could be re-molded into a fantastic jungle tale nobody would ever believe ...

Rudy Behlmer's excellent commentary is good enough to listen to on the first viewing of Chang, but Milestone has also included a terrific Thai-flavored score composed by Bruce Gaston and performed on authentic instruments by an orchestra called Fong Nam. There's also a press kit for the film, an essay on the production and an odd proto-colorized version of a scene from the film made in 1956 when Cooper was producing The Searchers. It's all done with hand-rotoed mattes and has to be adjudged a failure -- but a typically prophetic one.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Grass rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio interviews with Merian C. Cooper,
Chang rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Rudy Behlmer interview, essays, stills and ad art, Color test

Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 6, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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