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A Life Made for the Movies

From the August 12, 2005 Wall Street Journal: Merian C. Cooper and the passing of Hollywood's patriotism.

12:00 AM, Aug 19, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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THE CHARACTER of American movies has changed a great deal over the years. To take but one striking example: During the course of earlier wars, Hollywood churned out patriotic films depicting the valor of our troops, the menace of our enemies or simply the pluck of those who kept the home fires burning. In our current war, Hollywood is utterly silent, except for the occasional indictment of America.

There are many reasons for this evolution, some having to do with money and markets, some with broader shifts in the culture. But one overlooked reason is this: The men who make the movies have changed. Today's films are created mostly by crazed cult members, political fanatics and rich, pouty hedonists. They used to be created by men like Merian C. Cooper.

If Cooper is remembered at all, it is for producing a number of noteworthy films from 1933 to 1956, including The Searchers, The Quiet Man and Rio Grande. He also wrote and directed a little film called King Kong. You might have heard of it.

But directing one of Hollywood's greatest movies is one of the least interesting things Cooper did. Indeed, his personal story has an old-style, movie-like quality to it, involving action, danger and a deep commitment to national honor. It is hard to imagine any Hollywood bigwig today living--or wanting to live--even a fraction of such a life.

Sadly, Cooper's legend has been lost in the mists of current celebrity and is familiar now only to film obsessives. Mark Cotta Vaz's Living Dangerously rides to the rescue. Vaz provides an admiring and thorough telling of Cooper's exploits, backed up by meticulous research. The research is important because without it readers might think Vaz a fabulist.

The son of a wealthy lawyer whose ancestors stretched back to the Revolutionary War, Cooper attended prep school in New Jersey and then headed off to the Naval Academy at Annapolis. There his attraction to trouble and alcohol led to his dismissal midway through his senior year. Chastened, he replaced the bottle with a corncob pipe and knuckled down.

Fascinated by aviation, he made a beeline for World War I, writing to his father: "Pray for me. I have often blasphemed my God. I failed the service of my country in time of peace. Now I only ask humbly that I may prove worthy in the test of steel and blood." He became one of America's first combat pilots at a time when it was considered cowardly to wear a parachute.

This bravado caused Cooper some trouble. In a dogfight over France, his plane came under heavy fire. His tailgunner was shot in the neck, and the cockpit burst into flames, burning his hands. He would later write: "The only thing in the world that I wanted to do was get out of that pain, so I jerked off my belt and started to hop out when it flashed through my mind that I was leaving Eddie to burn up while I died easy." Ashamed at this realization, he returned to the controls and miraculously crash-landed the plane. He would spend the rest of the war in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Convinced that no one could have survived the crash, the Army issued a death certificate to his family.

Following the war, Cooper spent time hunting for the graves of missing Allied soldiers and airmen before going to Poland, in 1920, to support the Poles in their fight against the invading Bolsheviks. A fanatical anticommunist, Cooper began by directing humanitarian aid but soon decided to do more. He joined a legion of American pilots who had volunteered to fly combat missions for the Poles; seven months later he was shot down again and sent to a succession of Soviet prison camps.

His escape from this tight spot is another adventure entirely, but you get the general theme of Cooper's life. Living Dangerously recounts a nearly absurd series of exploits: his time as a gypsy sailor, his feasts with the man who would become Haile Selassie, his brush with--honestly--pirates.

It wasn't until 1924 that Cooper tried his hand at moving pictures, directing a documentary about Kurdish nomads called Grass, which would be nominated for an Oscar at the first Academy Awards. He directed two other movies before tackling King Kong (1933), the success of which made him an important figure in Hollywood. Throughout the 1930s, Cooper was a powerful and prolific producer.

But eventually his patriotism called him away again. After Pearl Harbor he rejoined the military--he was tangentially involved in planning the Doolittle raid on Japan in April 1942--and spent most of World War II in China fighting with the Air Force.