In the latter years of his long successful life, Merian C. Cooper – the creator of the epic film “King Kong” – developed an inconsolable longing to return to the Zagros Mountains of Iran and live out his remaining days among the Bakhtiari nomads of the region. The idea haunted him periodically. All he needed, he used to tell his old friend Ernest Schoedsack, was to “buy horses, a few flocks of sheep”, and (because of his growing frailness) “get a couple of good Persian doctors”. But the dream with all its endless possibilities was never realized.
Cooper had first visited Iran in 1924 to film the movie “Grass”, a documentary about the Baba Ahmadi branch of the Bakhtiari tribe. Their epic journey over the mountains between Ahvaz and Isfahan every year in search of grazing has been described as “the greatest migration in modern history”. Images of tribesmen throwing themselves into the rushing Karun River (along with their livestock), and footage of them climbing the glacial face of the massive Zardeh Kuh in their bare feet, thrilled audiences all over the world. Grass became Cooper’s first commercial box office success, and on the strength of it, he was given money to complete other film projects (of which King Kong became the most famous).
In real life, Cooper was bigger than any of his movie creations. He was distinguished as a Hollywood film producer, movie innovator, explorer, war hero, adventurer, pioneer of commercial air flight and much more besides. The new biography of him by Mark Cotta Vaz is entitled “Living Dangerously” and this is a very fitting title. Because for most of his life, Merian C. Cooper lived “on the edge”, at the extremes of life: he needed to take life-threatening risks in order to feel truly alive. Life in Santa Monica and San Diego bored the pants off him and he was forever planning to escape.
In 1924, from his tent high up on the Zagros Mountains, he had written in his diary: “You risk your skin, and in the moment when life balances with death, no matter how afraid you may be, you get a touch of the animal value of existence … wind and rain beats on your face as you brace yourself … some man trusts you above all other men and you realize what friendship means. These are the seconds which give zest and fire to existence … These are the moments when conscience and memory alike are drowned in the fine, physical or spiritual beauty of life…” (Vaz p6)
Cooper had experienced those heightened moments of existence before (in 1920) when as a volunteer in the Polish Air Force, he had flown dangerous missions against the invading Soviet armies. He had also experienced such moments on his journey with the Bakhtiari. He even envied one of the Bakhtiari leaders, Haidar Khan, who seemed to embody everything Cooper was looking for in life. (Some of Haidar’s qualities later found their way into the character of King Kong). But he could never find the heightened awareness he so craved anywhere else (except, perhaps in his cinematic imagination) although he longed for it until the day he died.
Cooper’s two companions during the filming of “Grass” — both Americans — were the boyish, excitable Ernest Schoedsack (who did most of the camera work), and the enigmatic Marguerite Harrison, who put up half of the money for the enterprise.
The three characters had met four years earlier in Poland, during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920. Cooper had been instrumental in creating the Kosciuszko Squadron: a group of young American airmen who had volunteered to help Poland in her hour of need. From their flimsy wood and canvas airplanes, they had bombed and strafed the advancing Soviet armies of Semyon Budienny, which were attempting to turn Poland into another Soviet Socialist Republic.
Shot down over the Ukraine, Cooper was captured by the Russians and dispatched to the Gulag. There, he was saved from starvation through the intervention of Marguerite Harrison (a mysterious American spy who may also have been working for the Soviets). He eventually escaped, and after crossing the northern Russian wastes with two Polish friends, found safety in neighboring Latvia. He returned to Poland a war-hero, and was decorated (along with his squadron) with the highest military honor the country is able to bestow: the Virtuti Militari.
Marguerite Harrison had put up half of the money needed to produce “Grass”, but only on the condition that she was allowed to take part in the expedition, something to which Schoedsack objected. (During the journey, he was constantly irritated by her habit of applying make-up before every filming and generally treating the expedition like a family holiday). But his objection was over-ruled, and on December 14th 1923, the three Americans arrived in Shustar by boat to start filming.
Every year, at Norooz, the Bakhtiari nomads, 50,000 men, women and children (together with half a million animals), began an epic journey over the Zagros Mountains in a search of grazing. In their path lay two great obstacles: the treacherous fast-running Karun River (half a mile wide) and the snow-clad Zardeh Kuh mountains, fifteen thousand feet high. They divided themselves into 5 separate groups, each taking a different route across the mountains. Cooper and his companions accompanied the Baba Ahmadi branch of the tribe from the start of their migration north of Ahvaz all the way to the plains of Isfahan, filming the whole journey with hand-cranked cameras supported on shaky tripods.
In the course of their journey, Cooper came to admire Haidar Khan, the tribal leader of the group. He was particularly impressed by the older man’s physical presence: very hairy, “like a gorilla”, Cooper remembered later. But in the presence of his nine-year-old son Lufta, the chief’s whole demeanor changed and he would become soft and gentle in speech and actions. The relationship between this father and son became the central focus of the film Grass.
The first obstacle for the group, the crossing the dangerous Karun River, took almost a full week. It was achieved by constructing flimsy rafts from inflated goatskins, a method Alexander the Great had used two thousand years earlier. So strong were the currents, that several tribesmen were swept away and ended up smashed against rocks. At one point, Cooper and Haidar, both stripped to the waist, raced one another across the river to the opposite bank, the older man surging ahead to win and uphold the dignity of his tribe. Cooper was exhausted by the swim, but Haidar, to Cooper’s amazement, returned time after time to help others on the other side. “Here, in danger,” Cooper observed (clearly overawed by Haidar’s natural physical powers), “[is] a man, by glory!”
Cinematically, the highpoint of the journey was the crossing of the snow-clad Zardeh Kuh, the last great barrier to the land of grass. The Bakhtiari left their tents and other belongings behind in order to travel more lightly and began their ascent of the almost sheer glacier face of the mountain. Most of them attempted the climb barefoot. They were assaulted by wind and snow. At night, they slept out under the stars. Cooper thought he was living a maddening dream. Finally, having reached the summit, they looked out before them and saw a sea of grass stretching across the horizon in a vast, tight arc of green. Cooper wrote in his diary: “Here was the prize of the gallant fight. Here was the land of plenty. Grass and life!” (Vaz 129)
The journey across the Zagros changed Cooper forever. He came to idealize the way of life of the Bakhtiari people. He was acutely conscious of the immensity of their possessions: the sky, the grass and the mountains disguised as clouds. He was also saddened (and angry) at the realization that their way of life was coming to an end; and the modern world was coming to throw this culture of a thousand years onto the dung heap of history. Something of his anger went into the final scenes of “King Kong”, when the giant gorilla, threatened by the flashing weapons of modern technology (guns and planes) makes his final, defiant stand on the topmost pinnacle of the Empire State Building.
Cooper later admitted that despite the millions of words written about the symbolism inherent in “King Kong”, the film was really just a whopping great yarn. Nevertheless, it was one that resonated with audiences all around the world who saw in it something more than mere surface gloss.
The film script for “King Kong” was written by Schoedsack’s wife, Ruth, who based the dialogue on conversations she remembered between Schoedsack and Cooper on their voyages of exploration. Her husband, (Schoedsack), did most of the camera work. Marguerite Harrison, the “unwanted woman” on the Zagros expedition, was the inspiration for the Fay Wray character. The personality of Kong himself was partly based on Paul du Chaillu's description of the death of a gorilla in his book “Explorations and Adventures in Equatorial Africa”, which Cooper had read as a 6-year-old boy. The gentle, human side of the animal’s character was modelled on Haidar, gleaned from glimpses of his relationship with Lufta (his beloved son).
Despite all his many accomplishments, however, Cooper always felt that he had left something of himself behind on the plains of Isfahan. In 1947, he began to make preparations for a re-make of “Grass”, but hastily abandoned it after learning that metal bridges now spanned the Karun River and a railroad had been built through the Zagros Mountains. The Wilderness had been brutally destroyed! There was no where else on earth to explore. Cooper, always the adventurer, turned to the only uncharted area left – the human imagination (which for him meant the cinema). He explored that exotic realm with all the creative resources at his disposal, leaving behind him a bright catalogue of marvelous and unforgettable films.
Ryszard Antolak is a writer and teacher based in England.
Vaz, Mark Cotta. Living Dangerously. The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper (Villard Books. 2005).
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