(I had second thoughts about this post, which I express in an endnote.)
At the moment, I'm reading a new biography of the pioneering filmmaker Merian C. Cooper, best remembered as producer and co-director of the original King Kong.
In many ways, I respect and admire Cooper. He was, after all, the mastermind behind my favorite movie. Ever since childhood I've been enthralled with the misty jungles of Skull Island, crowded with lumbering, leathery dinosaurs and ruled over by a lovelorn prehistoric ape. Kong made an indelible impression on me and was one of the main reasons why, from about the age of ten until the age of twenty-five, I harbored the very serious ambition to be a filmmaker.
Still, I must admit that while reading the early chapters of Living Dangerously, Mark Cotta Vaz's new bio, I've found myself thinking that there is an exceedingly fine line between heroism and sheer craziness. It's hard to say which side of the line Cooper occupied.
Even a capsule summary of Cooper's young manhood gives you some idea of what I'm talking about. Here's a guy who desperately wanted to be an aviator so he could fly combat missions in World War I -- this despite the fact that the poorly designed aircraft of the time were known by their own pilots as "Flying Coffins," prone to bursting into flames almost instantly when set upon by the superior German Fokkers. Cooper turned down an opportunity for a commission that might hit kept him out of the fiercest fighting and instead applied for the most dangerous missions. Inevitably he was shot down, miraculously surviving a crash landing with his hands horribly burned. A German surgeon saved his hands, and he spent the rest of the war in a series of hospitals.
Most people would have breathed a sigh of relief at this lucky escape and contented themselves with a simpler life. Not Cooper. He immediately plunged into the new war between Russia and Poland, taking the side of the Poles against the invading Bolsheviks. He led daring aerial raids against the enemy and was, of course, shot down again. Somehow he survived the second crash and ended up in a succession of Russian prison camps, where he received no medical attention and precious little food. Convinced he was about to be executed, Cooper escaped and made his way to the border, surviving a series of close shaves before reaching freedom.
And still Cooper had not satisfied his thirst for "adventure." He promptly set off on an expedition financed by the National Geographic Society, which led him into the wilds of Ethiopia, where he met the young prince Ras Tafari, who would later be crowned Haile Selassie. Next, embarking on a filmmaking odyssey with cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack and intrepid journalist Marguerite Harrison, Cooper joined the grueling seasonal migration of Kurdish nomads as they made their way across furious rapids and a dizzying mountain range. The trek was caught on film and became Cooper and Schoedsack's first motion picture, the silent classic Grass. The movie was a critical and commercial hit, and the two men headed off to Thailand (then known as Siam) to film Chang, a story of Siamese villagers threatened by man-eating tigers and rampaging elephants. Schoedsack contracted malaria in the jungle and filmed most of Chang while running a triple-digit temperature and tottering on the verge of collapse. Cooper himself nearly died when he slapped a tribal chieftain in a fit of rage and then made the mistake of dining at the chieftain's hut; the man's wife laced Cooper's stew with invisible slivers of bamboo which cut his digestive tract to pieces. Of course, these risks were trivial compared to the daily chances Cooper and Schoedsack took filming close-ups of savage tigers in the jungle and shooting an elephant stampede from a hole in the ground directly underneath the beasts' pounding feet.
That's as far as I've gotten in the book -- but it's enough to give you the flavor of Cooper's early years. The man was clearly a dynamo, fearless, packing every day of his life with thrills, and if we don't linger on the story too much, it will probably seem like a fine series of adventures. Upon reflection, however, perhaps a darker side emerges.
What was it that drove Cooper to risk his life again and again in combat and in exploration? Cotta Vaz gives little information about Cooper's childhood, presumably because he has few sources for that period, but one thing does emerge: Cooper's family filled his head with stories of military valor and strongly suggested that until he succeeded on the battlefield he would never be a real man. The young Merian obviously took these ideas to heart. He was desperate to prove himself in what he later called the "test of steel and blood."
Unfortunately he failed his first such test when he was expelled from the U.S. Naval Academy for some unspecified misconduct. Crushed and humiliated, Cooper wandered the country, penniless, refusing all aid from his family, as if by subjecting himself to the most severe physical punishment he could make up for his unforgivable lapse. A few years later he discovered the novel The Four Feathers, which tells the story of a man who displays cowardice in battle, is humiliated before his friends and his fiancee, and spends the next few years undergoing heroic trials and tribulations in order to redeem himself. It's clear that Cooper identified strongly with the hero of the book (which, years later, he sought to produce as a Hollywood film). What drove him into battle -- and into the most dangerous possible circumstances of warfare, with complete disregard for his own safety -- was clearly the need to atone for his profound personal disgrace. Even his World War I heroics were not enough to erase, for him, the stigma of his Annapolis expulsion. He had to fight and nearly die for the Poles as well.
All of this "adventure" did not leave him unmarked. Although Cooper comes across as the least introspective of men, Cotta Vaz did find a revealing essay he wrote after the close of his military service, in which he identifies with Don Quixote, the mad would-be knight from whom the adjective quixotic was coined.
I must strike through unspeakable opposition, and fight battles every one of which costs me my heart's blood. Day and night I am in straits, for those enemies are so artful that many I struck to death still give themselves the appearance of being alive, changing themselves into all forms, and spoiling day and night for me... Everywhere, and when I should least suspect it, I discovered on the ground the traces of their silvery slime... they poured hell into my heart, so that I wept poison and sighed fire; they crouched near me even in my dreams; and I see horrible specters, noble lackey faces with gnashing faces [sic] and threatening noses, and deadly eyes glaring from cowls, and white ruffled hands with gleaming knives.
And even the old woman who lives near me in the next room considers me to be mad, and says that I talk the maddest nonsense in my sleep; and the other night she plainly heard me calling out ...
The faces that must have haunted Cooper were the faces, real or imagined, of the many people he killed in his bombing raids and in hand-to-hand combat. In modern terms, Cooper was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder -- though doubtless he would have laughed off the suggestion that there was anything wrong with him.
Another unintentionally revealing statement is found in Cooper's diary from the time when he was traveling with the Kurds:
Buy horses, a few flocks of sheep, ally with one of the powerful tribes, get a couple good Persian doctors -- oh, there would be no limit to what might be done. Health and freedom and what a chance for power if a man was willing to play the game and run the risks. These people had over-run Persian before. They could put five to fifteen thousand fairly good light cavalry in the field....
How serious Cooper may have been when he penned these words, it is impossible to say. But there was more to his global wandering than simply a desire to see the far corners of the earth. There was a restless, incoherent ambition in the man, which at times took the form of adolescent power fantasies.
Is it too much to suggest that there was a death wish, as well? In one respect, no one ever lived life more fully or with more gusto than Merian C. Cooper, who lived out the fantasies of meeker men on the battlefield, in the desert and jungle, and in his numerous romantic liaisons. But again, there is a darker side. During his Polish bombing raids, Cooper carried a vial of poison which he intended to swallow if he were at risk of being captured; his plan went awry when he lost the bottle during his plane crash. Earlier, when his plane caught fire over the trenches of World War I, he nearly leaped to his death before deciding it would be cowardly to leave his observer (the man whose job was to scan the sky for enemy aircraft) alone in the cockpit. He was, at the very least careless, of his own life and of the lives of the people who fought and traveled with him.
When he and Schoedsack and Marguerite Harrison sojourned among the Kurds, it was only Cooper who idealized and romanticized their tribal lifestyle, even fantasizing that he might chuck civilization altogether and become one of the nomads himself. Schoedsack and Harrison were more realistic; impressed as they were by the Kurds' stamina and ferocity, they recognized that their impoverished life of constant struggle was hardly Edenic. Cooper relished physical punishment and deprivation to a degree that was arguably masochistic. And I have to wonder if he was not still (and always, to the end of his days) proving to himself and his family that he was tough, that he was a man, that he had lived up to the heroic traditions of his ancestors.
No one can or should pity Merian C. Cooper, a man whose life was crowded with excitement and romance and lasting achievements. Still, I can't help thinking of Socrates' famous observation that the unexamined life is not worth living. Cooper would have violently disagreed. For him, living was about plunging into the thick of things without thought or hesitation. Yet in the end, Socrates was probably right. Cooper lived dangerously and cheated death a hundred times, but it's unclear if he ever knew himself or wanted to.
And I wonder if the faces of the dead ever left his dreams.
Note, Oct. 23: I must have been in a churlish mood when I wrote this post. I seem to have gone out of my way to find a dark side to Cooper's charmed and crowded life. The truth is, "Coop" served his country with distinction, made marvelous movies, and pursued adventures of all kinds with courage and enthusiasm. Recently I saw Cooper & Shoedsack's silent film Chang, which is on DVD, and it really is a wonderful piece of work, exciting and unpredictable (albeit burdened with too many jokey title cards). Chang evokes the magic of faraway lands that enticed Cooper all his life, and I hope he is still exploring them now. As the kids say, "my bad" for trying to psychoanalyze and criticize such a distinctive American hero.