Harrison’s expedition inspires a movie scene

Marguerite’s version of how the movie began probably contains a kernel of truth because she acknowledged that before they left on the expedition, they received advice from U.S. State Department Near East expert Harrison G. Dwight, who had grown up in Persia and Turkey. She said he told them to try to film the Kurds in Turkey, but that if they could afford more time and money, they might also consider the Bakhtiari in Persia, who migrate each summer to the mountains in search of grass.

The real purpose of the mission may never be known. At the time they planned the journey, the area was rife with intrigue. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had just defeated the British and Greeks and was in the process of establishing an independent Turkey. Both the West and Russia sought to win Atatürk’s loyalty in those early days of his reign. Meanwhile, Great Britain, America, and Russia competed to control the region’s vast oil wealth. The intent to film the Kurds and the Bakhtiari point to the mission as one to enlist alliances to help America gain access to the oil fields.

It seems likely that Cooper asked Marguerite to join the expedition because he knew she was a talented linguist who had proven capable of working in harsh conditions in Russia and Asia. Another clue that she was an integral part of the team is that the index to her Military Intelligence Division personal file contains three entries marked “training”—on March 28, 1923, April 6, 1923, and May 5, 1923—immediately before they departed for the Middle East and more than two years after she officially ended work with the agency. The actual documents, however, are not in her file. Is it possible she received language training on those dates?

Fay Wray as Ann Darrow and Bruce Cabot as John Driscoll in scene from King Kong.

Decades after the expedition, Cooper and Schoedsack portrayed Marguerite as a burdensome accomplice. Cooper said he felt obliged to take her on the trip because she had saved his life in Russia and because she was helping fund the expedition. Schoedsack said he adamantly opposed taking her along, a view that even made its way into Cooper and Schoedsack’s most famous collaboration, King Kong. In a scene, written by Schoedsack’s wife, Rose, heroine Ann Darrow asks first mate John Driscoll, “I guess you don’t think much of women on ships, do you?” Driscoll, a character modeled after Schoedsack, replies, “No they’re a nuisance.”

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