A mission and a mystery: Harrison in the Middle East

Marguerite Harrison, Merian Cooper, and Ernest Schoedsack kept the Middle East mission secret their entire lives. They wrote books and articles, and they gave lectures and interviews about the expedition. But they never revealed that while documenting the epic journey of a Persian tribe’s search for pasture, they were gathering intelligence for the U.S. Army.

For years, film critics and historians described their 1925 film “Grass” as a missed opportunity. Schoedsack captured spectacular footage of the Bakhtiari tribe as the nomads hiked barefoot over a snow-covered mountain and herded their animals across a raging river in search of summer pasture. Yet the movie lacked a coherent narrative, critics complained. The first half of the film focused on Marguerite as a woman fed up with civilization who goes searching for a “forgotten people.” In the second half of the movie, she virtually disappeared, as the story shifted to the tribal chief and his son.

Historians also pondered why, for decades, Marguerite, Cooper, and Schoedsack told conflicting stories about the journey, even disagreeing on such fundamental points as who conceived of the movie was and who paid for it.

The explanation for these inconsistencies is as simple as it is shocking: In trying to keep the true nature of the expedition secret, the three were ensnared in lies and contradictions.

The evidence that “Grass” was an intelligence mission is found in a handwritten notation on a letter Cooper sent to the U.S. Army intelligence service in 1940. After World War II began in Europe, Cooper knew that the United States would join the fight. He proposed undertaking a fact-finding mission for the Army under the pretext of making a film. He wrote: “I successfully led two expeditions on my own initiative as the one I suggested to you.”

By that time, Cooper had made movies in Thailand (“Chang”) and Sudan (“The Four Feathers”). But it was “Grass” that would take him to one of the most volatile regions of the world.

Cooper’s 1940 letter to Gen. Sherman Miles

In the margin, someone, presumably the recipient, General Gen. Sherman Miles, appears to write:  “Proposed trip to West Africa, in Grass, a movie project but really to obtain information for us.”

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