Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life
Dir: Merian C. Cooper
and Ernest Schoedsack
Scr: Terry Ramsaye
Pho: Merian C.
Cooper, Ernest Schoedsack, and Marguerite Harrison
Ed: Terry Ramsaye,
Richard P. Carver
Premiere: March 20,
Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life is one of the most extraordinary records ever put on film. It captures a way of life thousands of years old, before modern technology eliminated it. The second important ethnographic documentary to be released, after Robert Flaherty’s 1922 Nanook of the North, it vividly illustrates film’s ability to bring us sights we might otherwise have never seen, lost to history forever.
Merian C. Cooper was a journalist and explorer. Ernest Schoedsack was an adventurous cameraman. Marguerite Harrison was a journalist and part-time spy for the U.S. Together, they conceived of making a documentary about Kurdish tribes in Turkey, but when they got there they found the prospect wasn’t as photogenic as they had hoped. Casting about for a subject, they came upon word of the Bakhtiari people of southeastern Iran. After an interminable journey across Turkey and Arabia, and after much negotiation, the three were allowed to accompany the Baba Ahmedi tribe on their yearly migration.
The tribe, consisting of 50,000 members, and trailing half a million horses, cattle, goats, and sheep, made the trip from the withered grasslessness of valley summer to the high plains of the mountains every year – a 48-day journey that involved crossing a half-mile-wide river and ascending a 12,000-foot mountain range. The grueling migration kept the flocks and herds in fodder year-round.
The film traces this journey. The sights becoming more and more impressive as the film goes on. To cross the River Karun, the tribesmen must create rafts held up by inflated goat skins, and ferry their livestock and all their possessions from one bank to another, a process taking six full days. The extreme peril undergone by all involved is astonishing. After this comes a climb over the mountains, through thick snow, to mountain pasturage. The Bakhtiari hack a path through the snow with picks and shovels; the tribe makes its way over the crest in bare feet.
All the camerawork is incredible – night shots, early in the film, are Rembrandtian, and the rest is carefully framed and observed. (The intertitles are jokey and condescending.) One particular shot, of thousands on the march from the mountain pass to the plains below, stretching away for miles, would not be equaled until the revelation of Wadi Rum in Lawrence of Arabia.
The incredible hardiness of the nomads is on clear display here; it is difficult to conceive of a life lived so close to nature. Undoubtedly, they would not be pastoralists unless necessity made them so. Cooper and Shoedsack later considered a sequel to this film, but by that time rail lines and roads had come into existence, making the Bakhtiaris’ travels much easier. By and by, their migrations have lessened, become more streamlined. With the amount of connection and advances, it is difficult to conceive of a nomadic lifestyle persisting as recently as 100 years ago. Cooper and Schoedsack preserved it for us. It is still compulsively watchable.
What did they do for an encore? They made King Kong.