Sheep, Stars, and Solitude
Shortly after returning home from the filming of Finland Waters, Russia had attacked Finland, making our documentary on that country more timely than anything else we could have produced.
A year and three months after completing Circle of Fire Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, and made this one of the most timely films in America.
In its own way, This Is Your America, was equally timely.
Timeliness. It is one of the important ingredients in a documentary’s success.
Where now should we turn? What film could we now produce that would be aided by this ingredient?
The answer required an analysis that went far beyond surface factors.
Psychologically, America was being suffocated by war. Economically, she was reeling under its costs. Emotionally, she was worn out. Spiritually, she was groping, searching.
In This Is Your America, the short segment on the Arizona sheep—strange as it may seem—had received the highest praise of any sequence in that film. (See Chapter 21.)
Nothing could be more timely, now, than a program that would give audiences a respite from the stress of war. If that program could, in some way, also offer healing for the emotions, even provide spiritual uplift, then it would be serving a vital need. Such a film, in the truest sense, would be timely.
Helen and I planned and talked, and dreamed. It was decided that I should follow the herd of her cousin’s sheep throughout its entire forty-day grueling trek from Arizona’s hot Salt River Valley to the cool summer pastures in the northern mountains. The film would be titled Sheep, Stars, and Solitude.
I have since written a complete book by the same name concerning that journey with the sheep, describing every important episode, trying to catch the mystic flavor of star-studded Arizona nights and the soothing solitude of lonely deserts and silent forests. The third generation Arizonan, Dan Genung, says of the book in its Foreword:
When you open the pages of this book, plan to live for several hours with life at its simplest, harshest, and yet strangely its most gloriously beautiful. You will be living with history on the hoof.
You must be willing to march with the planet Jupiter as it leads the parade of night across Arizona skies. You learn to seek sleep in thin blankets while the stars brush your hair and the Milky Way nestles on your shoulders.
Here is your challenge to trudge through searing sands and on rocks that shred your shoes. You will be trapped on a mountain slope which has become a “rock-ribbed refrigerator” by the freezing impact of a storm “like a Paul Bunyan gone mad in the forest. “
Here is your invitation to dine on beans and pan-brown bread, to share the misery of a shivering sheepdog and the rain-sodden woes of burros who “document their sorrow with their ears at half-mast. “
Here is your introduction to Rosalio Lucero, whose last name means “Morning Star, ” a sheepherder whose profession predates Moses by thousands of years, and whose unfolding odyssey seems to translate the scenes of the Twenty-third Psalm into a setting of the Arizona wilds. You can share his heartaches and joys as he nurses 2,000 “sheepsies” over 200 treacherous miles “with the tender care of a mother with a colicky child. “
Actually, I made the trek twice, the second time (this was a fifty-two day odyssey) to obtain still photographs and write an article for The National Geographic Magazine. I likewise did an illustrated article for Arizona Highways.
It would be repetitious to detail the sheep trek here. But it is important to chronicle the reception the film received.
Eventually, I would present it, personally, before more than a million persons across the United States, from New York to San Francisco, and across Canada, from Toronto to Vancouver.
Audience reaction in New York was representative of the reception which the film received. After my showing at Columbia University, Program Director Dr. Russell Potter wrote me a glowing letter, and at once scheduled the film for a repeat showing the following year. He eventually had me present it at Columbia University four times.
Of course I showed Sheep, Stars, and Solitude for the National Geographic in Washington, D.C. There were two presentations in Constitution Hall, one in the afternoon and the other in the evening, to a total of six thousand persons. Melville Grosvenor not only wrote me a letter of praise; his assessment of the film’s impact was graphically measured by the fact that he at once commissioned me to make the sheep trek a second time, to obtain still photos and write an article for National Geographic Magazine.
At George Pierrot’s World Adventure Series in Detroit, when the annual audience balloting was conducted for best film of the year, Sheep, Stars, and Solitude took first place, as had Circle of Fire and This Is Your America before it. No one else had ever won three such awards.
Sometime later, at the 21st anniversary celebration of the Detroit World Adventure Series—largest of its kind in the world—the seven persons still living, who had ranked highest in audience popularity during those twenty-one years, provided the program. The Series had presented almost all the top explorers and adventurers (as well as writers and public figures), such as Admiral Richard E. Byrd, Lowell Thomas, Lowell Thomas, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Burton Holmes, Dr. Will Durant, Count Felix Von Luckner, Thor Heyerdahl (Kon Tiki), John Gunther, Edwin Way Teale, Richard Halliburton, Fr. Bernard Hubbard, Frank (Bring ’em back alive) Buck, Sir Hubert Wilkins, Cmdr. Irving Johnson, Col. John (Danger Is My Business) Craig, Ellery Queen, Kermit Roosevelt, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr., Louis Untermeyer, Harrison Forman, Gutzon Borglum, and a couple of hundred others, through the twenty-one years.
The elaborate program booklet given out to the audience that day (we had to present shows both afternoon and evening to accommodate the overflow crowd) listed all 279 speakers who had been part of the World Adventure Series programs through the years. After my name was printed: “His all-time ballot rating tops all others. On our 21st birthday he makes (coincidentally) his 21st appearance for us.”
It was gratifying to be ranked first on such a list, but I was sensible enough to realize that several special circumstances had been partly responsible. Audience voting had not started in the initial days of the World Adventure Series. Helen and I presented color motion pictures only; many of the others (particularly the earlier ones) used black-and-white films, or color slides. The films I showed had, in every case, been timely. A fellow lecturer summed it up for me: “You interject enough humor into your presentations to keep the audience laughing, enough seriousness to keep them thinking, and an element of spirituality to raise their sights.”
Sheep, Stars, and Solitude for several years was the leading film on the American lecture platform and never did lose its popularity. The St. Louis YMCA series used it two different years on all of their five citywide showings. I traveled to Hawaii for showings on all five of Hawaii’s principal islands, under auspices of the Honolulu Kiwanis Club. For this purpose they provided a small private plane and pilot who “island hopped” from Oahu to Maui, Kauai, Lanai, and the Big Island. We even flew over to Molokai for a free showing at the leper colony.
The next year I made the same Hawaiian circuit again, with another film. But the year following that, they wanted a repeat of Sheep, Stars, and Solitude. This time Helen accompanied me and in the same private plane we again made the tour of all those islands, including Molokai, where a leper patient acted as our projectionist. We later gave him a handclasp of thanks. A bonus of that experience was learning that modern leprosy is not contagious.
The Fullerton, California Forum presented Sheep, Stars, and Solitude more than any other place—nine times in all, with each showing before a capacity audience of nearly two thousand.
Foreign rights to the film were purchased by the U.S. State Department. They translated a shorter version of my commentary into twenty-six foreign languages, for distribution worldwide through the United States Information Service.
We, ourselves, produced a short version with sound on the film, which we called Morning Star and arranged for its distribution through Encyclopaedia Britannica Films. Forty years after it was first made, the shorter version is still being sold to schools, libraries, universities and clubs throughout the land.
Sheep, Stars, and Solitude was a timely film when we produced it, because it provided healing from the scars of war.
It was timely then.
But it is timeless now. Sheep are enduring symbols of humanity’s trek across the ages. Stars are eternal. Solitude is a basic ingredient of life.
Sheep, Stars, and Solitude, in its shorter version as an educational documentary, and in book form, will—we hope—go on long after Helen and I have departed. Of all our films, it was both timely and timeless.
Starting our travels with Barbara’s little red wagon, we had taken a journey to the stars.