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From Grass to People of the Wind : A Hollywood Odyssey among Bakhtiary tribeman

1/29/03 By Darius Kadivar

Bakhtiary tribes and their yearly migration accross the persian landscapes and their physical and moral endeavors seem to have been fascinating enough to become a subject for two now classic films made by Hollywood Directors. The First Grass: A Nations Battle for Life (1925) made by the future producers of "King Kong" and the Second the Oscar nominated 1976 documentary film "People of the Wind" narrated by James Mason.

"Grass: A Nations Battle for Life"
(photo courtesy Cinerama, Inc)

Merian C. Cooper ((1893 - 1973) is well known in the motion picture industry for his long list of pioneering ventures. He met Ernest B. Schoedsack in Poland during World War I and the two intrepid travelers decided to collaborate on making Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life (1925), showing the migratory habits of' the Bakhtiari tribe in Iran.

Grass begins with Cooper, Schoedsack, and their third colleague, Marguerite Harrison, photographing themselves. Cooper is seen smoking a pipe, and a title card identifies him as "The engineer who conceived the idea of recording the migration."

In the next shot, Cooper consults with Schoedsack, "whose camera recorded the experience." Lastly, we are introduced to Harrison, dressed in safari gear, looking like a cross between Marlene Dietrich and Marie Dressler. She is identified as an "author and traveler."

After this moment in the spotlight, the two men disappear behind the camera. But the meaning is clear -- this is their film, their version of the events.

"Hollywood pioneer Merian C. Cooper
makes his filmaking debut with Grass"
(photo courtesy Cinerama, Inc)

Grass sets out along a caravan rout "worn by the passing feet of centuries." Moving east through ancient villages and blinding sandstorms, the filmmakers reach a primitive settlement of goat-hair tents.

Here, the village chieftain, Haidar, and his son become the focus of the film. A drought has parched the plains, so Haidar gives the order to pack up and begin the journey to feed their flocks in greener pastures.

Men, women and children laden with tents and supplies herd their animals across immense distances, across raging rivers and up steep rocky mountain slopes. Barefoot, they climb through the snows of Zardeh Kuh where the camera captures amazing images.

The filmmakers exposed audiences to scenes they didn't want to see, such as young animals drowning in the current of a river. These scenes seemed too harsh and perhaps that's why the film wasn't as commercially successful as Robert Flaherty's Nanoonk of the North (1922).

However far from being discouraged, the collaboration between Cooper and Schoedsack extended into feature films with exotic backgrounds, the most famous of which was the legendary King Kong (1933), a classic in the fantasy-horror genre.

"People of the Wind" Oscar nominated in 1976"
(photocourtesy Tapeworm Studio)

In 1975 precisely fifty years after Merian C. Coopers and Ernest B. Schoedsack's 1925 Odyssey 'Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life' , Anthony Howarth and David Koff decide to pay tribute to their daunting predecessors in another Documentary illustrating the same journey, only the reverse trip.

This time in color this documentary entitled " People of the Wind " shot in 1975 and released in 1976 allowed the film crew to focus on one particular tribesman leader of the Babahdi tribe whose words, translated into English and read by the actor James Mason, tell the timeless story of the great migration.

In western Iran the Bakhtiari tribe must make an annual 8-week, 200 mile trip to the mountain summer pastures. In this hazardous test of human endurance, we embark on an outstanding migration that takes a 500,000 men, women, and children, their livestock (one million animals) and all their possessions across the Zagros Mountains, a range which is as high as the Alps and as broad as Switzerland.

The tribesman relates the traditional rituals of life for the Bakhtiari, from how they tend their animals to their elaborate wedding feasts, and over the course of the film the tribe's unique mountain culture emerges. His story is as compelling, as it is amazing. It is difficult to believe that a people would so endure a journey of such hardship year after year. There is no road through the mountain, only trails or passages worn over time. It is, indeed, rough and rugged terrain over which to cross. The people climb, without roaps, these 15,000 foot peaks, herding along their livestock, in clothing and footwear that does not inure them to the ravages of frostbite and illness. You see young children herding animals on precipices that would give most people shivers. The movie takes you on a wonderful trip into the most savage, yet splendid scenery of inner Iran. The music only amplifies your joyous odyssey from numerous river crossings and mountainous trails.

It is a primitive, yet communal way of life. The film provides the viewer with a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of these robust and proud mountain people.

A credit should be given to the film's astonishing wide-screen photography which offers sweeping mountain panoramas that take the viewer out into the dangerous precipices of the Zardeh Kuh mountain and into the icy waters of the Cholbar river.

Fifty years after Cooper & Schoedsack's challenging Documentary , the producers of " People of the Wind " prove that the Bakhtiari's are still a fascinating people by offering us a stunning saga of survival with scenes which have to this day something of Biblical force and intensity.

For present day viewers it would be interesting to know if the migration has changed in present-day Iran.

Authors note:
Both films are available on

Grass:A Nations Battle for Life

People of the Wind

You can learn more a bout Merian C. Cooper and prolific carreer as a producer after the success of Grass at:

About the author:
Darius Kadivar was born to an Iranian father and French mother,and lives and works currently in France as a multimedia documentalist. Interested in movies and particularily historic Epics made by Hollywood's Golden Age in the 50's and 60's. He has contributed a number of articles on movies for various on-line magazines.

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