Carrying 20,000 feet of undeveloped film from Isfahan in central Persia across the Mediterranean to Paris, Merian Coldwell Cooper and Ernest Beaumont Schoedsack already knew what was missing from their picture. After 18 months trekking around Eurasia, they had found a nomadic tribe to follow and joined the Bakhtiaris’ 46-day migration over the Zagros Mountains. They captured astonishing footage, including the harrowing crossing of the icy Karun River on goatskin rafts. Still, they were dissatisfied.
Schoedsack volunteered to stay behind to film a Bakhtiari family in order to create a drama relatable for audiences back home. Yet only 80 feet of film stock remained, Cooper had been wearing dancing pumps for most of the migration, and Schoedsack’s Palm Beach linen suit was in tatters. They were broke. Grass (1925) would have to be cut together with what they had. The “character interest” they sought would have to wait for their next film, Chang: A Drama in the Wilderness (1927).
Both born in 1893, Cooper and Schoedsack were reared in an imperial age, when the United States began invoking Manifest Destiny to justify global expansion. Men of their time, they were raised on the myths of explorers like Richard Burton who helped map Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, novels like Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 Treasure Island, and tales of exotic lands by naturalists such as Paul Belloni du Chaillu, whose illustrations of gorillas fascinated the West. Conflating war and adventure, Cooper and Schoedsack eagerly answered the call in 1917 to “make the world safe for democracy.”
The pair met in Vienna after World War I, when Schoedsack was shooting newsreel footage and Cooper, a bomber pilot, had just been released from a German prisoner-of-war camp. Aiding Polish refugees during the Russo-Polish War, they became fast friends. Later, in 1922, on an expedition led by explorer Edward A. Salisbury to locate a race of men with tails in the Malay Archipelago, Cooper invited Schoedsack to replace the original cameraman who had become too frightened to stay aboard. Waylaid in Addis Ababa, Cooper and Schoedsack shot footage of the soon-to-be Haile Selassie’s efforts to liberate Ethiopia. The Golden Prince was to be the duo’s first joint documentary, but Salisbury turned the footage into travelogue instead. Disappointed but undeterred, they embarked on a new project to film “a great national migration.”
With Grass, Cooper and Schoedsack joined the nervy band of 20th century camera adventurers who used the moving image to document the conflicts, peoples, cultures, wildlife, and landscapes they encountered and, later, to publicize their adventures. Jessica Borthwick changed her film magazines under the cover of sheepskin rugs in the Rhodope Mountains while filming the second Balkan War. Lowell Thomas spread the fame of T.E. Lawrence, touring with films and photographs of the British Intelligence officer who led the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans. Biologist Carl Akeley invented a special camera and tripod so he could more easily film gorillas in their natural habitat. Silvino Santos documented explorer Alexander Hamilton Rice’s search for El Dorado in the Amazon. Robert Flaherty created a myth out of Inuit life in Arctic Quebec with Nanook of the North (1922).
Jesse Lasky of Famous Players-Lasky recognized the box-office draw of “real-life” dramas like Nanook, commissioning Flaherty’s next project Moana (1926), set in Samoa. When Lasky saw Grass as part of its lecture circuit tour in New York, he agreed to distribute it theatrically, adding a prologue that featured Cooper and Schoedsack and padding the ending with outtakes. Grass earned more than $85,000 in its three-month run at New York’s Criterion Theater. Foreseeing big profit at little expense, Lasky put up $75,000 for Chang.
Cooper and Schoedsack had Flaherty in mind when they set out for Siam’s remote jungles, staying more than one year among the Lao of Nan Province. They assembled a fictional family, complete with a pet gibbon. They built a solitary house in the jungle to manufacture a drama that no Lao would actually risk, life away from other villagers. They also manufactured close-action situations with tigers and elephants to thrill audiences back home. Cooper acknowledged the artifice of their story in a letter to Isaiah Bowman, director of the American Geographical Society: “Under the instructions of our head office, we are ‘working in’ a slight dramatic theme. The result will unquestionably be quite artificial; yet in its way, it will tell―even if caractitured [sic]―the very real struggle of the jungle man.”
What is known of their many months in Siam comes from their testimony alone, principally from Cooper’s letters and the articles and interviews written as part of the film’s promotion. Cooper often expressed frustration in dealing with the Lao, complaining that they did not follow instructions when helping to trap tigers, a task the locals understandably did not relish. Years later in an interview with historian Kevin Brownlow, Cooper chuckled when describing how he had slapped the Lao chief whose wife then spiked Cooper’s dinner with bamboo barbs in revenge.
To prevent Lasky’s editors from padding their latest film, Cooper and Schoedsack cut it themselves, discarding leftover footage. When Chang premiered in New York in April 1927, it was a hit. Audiences were thrilled in particular by the elephant stampede scene, which was projected in “Magnascope,” a process whereby a wide-angle lens enlarged the image to fill the entire proscenium. The film went on to gross nearly $2 million and, at the first Academy Awards in 1929, it received an honorable mention for “Unique and Artistic Picture” alongside King Vidor’s The Crowd. When Cooper and Schoedsack proposed their next project, an adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel The Four Feathers, the studio bought the rights.
A mix of on-location and back-lot shooting, The Four Feathers (1929) marked the team’s departure from Flaherty-style filmmaking, a move that became final when they made 1933’s King Kong. Written by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, Kong was based on the travel adventures of Cooper and Schoedsack; the two directors even play the pilots who shoot down the doomed ape at the end.
Schoedsack went on to a solo directing career, making his last film in 1949, Mighty Joe Young. Cooper became the head of production at RKO, where he produced Becky Sharp (1935), the first three-strip Technicolor feature, and began a partnership with director John Ford that lasted through 1956’s The Searchers. Cooper also attempted Technicolor versions of both Grass and Chang, but neither film was completed.
Meanwhile, the “natural dramas” shot by adventure-filmmakers like Cooper and Schoedsack became the subject of ongoing debate. In 1933, Franz Boas, the chief anthropologist at the American Museum of Natural History, had written to Will Hays of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, proposing a collaboration between Hollywood and science. “[These films],” he wrote, “might have been ever so much more interesting if a person had been consulted who knows the social life of the people intimately.”
That the people themselves knew best was not mentioned. Chang was released in Bangkok in 1929, but no information is available in English about what the Lao thought of the film. The Inuit who have watched Nanook of the North view it as inauthentic to the point of being laughable. Yet the film still has value for them. “[T]hese pictures,” says one Inuit man in Claude Massot’s 1988 documentary Nanook Revisited, “are the only pictures … of that time in this region.
Presented at Winter Event, December 2009 with live music by Donald Sosin