Peter Jackson's respectful remake/homage to the original 1933 King Kong has rightfully drawn more attention to filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. Adventurers drawn along the same line as Kong's fictional Carl Denham and Jack Driscoll, Cooper and Schoedsack also produced two previous groundbreaking silent films--Chang (1927) and Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925). What those two silent films share is the filmmaker's courageous sense of adventure, but the earlier film differs by serving as a historic documentary and terrific anthropological study of people that no longer live the same nomadic lifestyle as they did 80 years ago.
Grass even includes a hammy portrait of Merian C. Cooper and a brief shot of Schoedsack before focusing on journalist Marguerite Harrison as they embark on a treacherous adventure across Turkey's desert plateau into Persia (now Iran) to find "the Forgotten People," the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe of some 50,000. The three filmmakers are cited with an unusual credit at the end--a photographed document certifying that they are the first three foreigners to ever trek through the 12,000+ foot Zardeh Kuh Mountain pass with the Bakhtiari. Thus, we are witnessing history, and this makes the black and white documentary all that more compelling.
Before reaching the "Forgotten People," we experience a typical sandstorm and are welcomed into a traditional caravanserai--a desert shelter with an open courtyard for fires, cooking, and camels. We also meet officious desert police, who loosen up off duty big time when playing cards, and also see a sharp eyed native hunter bring down a mountain goat that soon becomes kebobs for all. Simple everyday life when trekking this territory, but the film remains mesmerizing. The best is to come, however.
The Bakhtiari depend on their livestock for survival, so when the grass begins to run out chief Haidar Khan realizes that it's time to lead his people across the rugged terrain on their annual migration to a grassy region. That means crossing an icy, perilous river that means certain death for a few goats and sheep. The camera lingers longer at the riverbank to see how the tribe and their livestock fare, so this may disturb a few faint of heart. The most difficult portion is yet to come--the frozen stretch that leads up the Zardeh Kuh Mountain that requires the tribe to remove their cloth woven shoe wear and trudge up the snow barefooted. I have no idea why they don't all suffer frostbite! The long shot of the 50,000 slowly winding up the path remains one of the most memorable moments of the film--so incredible that Cooper edits that shot into the narrative two times.
Milestone has done the film a tremendous service by preserving it on DVD and including a priceless interview with Cooper. The current version also includes an evocative Iranian music score by Gholam Hosain Janati-Ataie, Kavous Shirzadian and Amir Ali Vahabzagedegan that would be worth having on CD, but it's all the more powerful here with the historic visuals from the cradle of civilization. While some scenes feel staged for the film, most are filmed in the same tradition that Robert Drew and his "cinema direct" devotees would later adopt. Grass is sufficient to place Cooper-Schoedsack in film history; of course, they had more territory to pioneer in the coming years.