Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Grass: Untold Stories -- the background to 1926 Iranian documentary



By Moira Sullivan

Dr Bahman Maghsoudlou, an Iranian American who is a film scholar film critic and filmmaker wrote Grass: Untold Stories published in 2008 on the making of Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, a silent documentary filmed by Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison in Iran in 1924. The documentary is about the Bakhtiari migration in search of grass from Angora to their lands in Persia. The Bakhtiari migration in search of Grass is an arduous trek that took place in Persia. The filmmakers followed the trip in particular the young Lufta and his father Haidar Khan – with 50,000 of his people and animals that crossed the Karun River – some on blown up goatskins, others on rafts, particularly the goats

Grass: Untold Stories
is an extraordinary document about Merian Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison and how their lives intersect. Cooper was a combat pilot in France who was shot down and captured in a Russian prison. He reached out for help to a woman he had briefly danced with before in Poland, Marguerite Harrison who sent him food, and supplies and helped him to get out of prison. Harrison enlisted in intelligence service operations and lived in Russia

Cooper and Schoedsack, an army cameraman had previously made a film on Ras Tafari (also known as Haile Selassie) and “Grass” became their next project which was in part funded by Harrison. Shoedsack did not like that Cooper allowed Harrison on the trip but Bahman Maghsoudlou finds her an extraordinary person, a woman who inspired the character of Anne Darrow in King Kong from 1933 played by Faye Wray.  Harrison is often seen mounted on a donkey being led by a Persian, dressed in Western clothing and often posing for the camera. Cooper and Shoedsack remained behind the scenes in film that was physically exhausting and moved through difficult terrain.

The biography of the making of the film and its makers goes into great detail about each of these historical figures and is based largely on the writings of Harrison, the only one to keep an extensive written record of the film which she chronicles in There’s Always Tomorrow from 1938. Segments of Maghsoudlou's book is based on her memoirs.

Shoedsack left no memoirs but Cooper was working on his autobiography I’m King Kong, which is now part of the DVD box set of the King Kong films released in 2005. It is co-directed by Kevin Brownlow with archival footage of Cooper, Shoedsack and Harrison.

Merian Cooper has said that he wanted to make a film like Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty) though was unaware of that film until after he returned from Persia, which was what Iran was called until 1938 when Reza Shah Pahlavi changed the name. Pahlavi was a progressive head of state that allowed women to act in films and lifted restrictions on wearing the hijab.

The film premiered in March 1925 and the wording of the advertisement in New York World sounds like some of the dialogue in Kong for example the buildup of the area in Persia where the film is set : "the blood red sun withered the grass – seared the souls of 50,000 people and half a million beasts and –we started our epic".

Here now is Dr Bahman Maghsoudlou speaking about his book Grass: Untold Stories (interview follows the report).

For Movie Magazine this is Moira Sullivan

© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 11/07/17
Movie Magazine International

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