The Iran Mission on Film
--by Matthew K. Shannon
Matthew Shannon is Associate Professor of History at Emory & Henry College and 2021-2022 Research Fellow at the Baskerville Institute. The Presbyterian Historical Society is pleased to partner with him for the Community School Oral History Project. Click here to learn more.
In 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I asked PHS to digitize two 16-millimeter silent motion picture films. The films, produced by the PCUSA’s “Iran Mission,” are titled Parviz Goes to College and G.I. Jimmie Meets the Iran Mission. At a time when many people do not have DVD players, let alone 16-millimeter film viewers, I wondered: Would it be possible to revive footage from the 1930s and 1940s to view in the twenty-first century? As anyone who has worked with PHS knows, the archivists always find ways to help researchers. In early 2021, I received digital files of the two silent films, one black-and-white and the other in color. It was a blessing for my research because archives were not open during the pandemic. After many screenings, it became clear that their value extended beyond the research for my current book project. The films are now available on the Pearl Digital Archive for researchers, teachers, students, and history-lovers everywhere. Here are some points to consider before you dive in.
Parviz Goes to College
“Parviz Goes to College” is a promotional video, something akin to what a university admissions office would produce today for a website or social media. This 35-minute film, silent and in black-and-white, was made to “invite you to visit – support – pray for the Alborz College of Tehran.” The college existed from 1925 to 1940, and in 1932 the “American College of Tehran” was rebranded “Alborz College of Tehran.” This film, made c. 1934, could have been used in Iran to recruit students. However, it was intended for donors in the United States. Consider this message from an Alborz College newsletter in October 1934.
The film is steeped in “Orientalism” and “Persophilia,” and it originally presented interwar Americans with an imagined “Iran.” The missionary filmmakers perceived their host country as “the land of the Medes and the Persians,” yet they also supported the nation-building efforts of the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-79) and understood that “modern Iran is a country of curious contrasts.” The filmmakers visually captured a country in transition, with scenes of farmers working the land and nomadic tribes trekking across seasonal migration routes. Viewers learn that, if “camels bring the winter’s wood,” the “trucks carry the freight” and “ordinary travel is by motorcar.” The Iran Mission considered its flagship institution “a great college in an awakening land,” and the film boasts impressive panoramic scenes of the campus with the snowcapped Alborz Mountains towering in the background. Today, promotional videos for what is now an elite Iranian school depict a campus enveloped by an urban metropolis.
The people of Alborz College are at the foreground of the film. First and foremost is the title character, Parviz, pictured below in a screenshot. Then come the Alborz administrators and professors. Samuel Martin Jordan, the college’s founder and president, is omnipresent in the film, and he was immortalized years later when the Alborz alumni commissioned a bust of him. Arthur Boyce, the vice-president, “receives Parviz,” who arrives in dress that is indicative of the socio-political realities of the early Pahlavi period. Dean Walter Groves approved Parviz’s academic plan, and Herrick Young got him acquainted with campus life. In a version of today’s “work-study” program, we learn that “Parviz operates [the] college generator to earn his fees.” While the students were predominantly Iranian men, the administration and faculty were binational. In the film, we meet Professors Mohammad Hassan Farhi and Ahmad Nakhosteen, who taught Persian literature and Arabic language, respectively, along with Yahya Armajani.
After check-in, Parviz had the Alborz experience. He made new friends, ate with other boarders at the cafeteria, and waited in lines to check out books from the library. He majored in the sciences and studied in the laboratories of Moore Science Hall, whose benefactor makes an appearance in the film before flying out of Tehran and over the Alborz Mountains. The emphasis on technology and science segues to scenes of track-and-field events, basketball games, tennis matches, and the college pool. Alborz had all the trappings of modernity, but the college also served the aims of the Iran Mission’s Evangelical Church. Students attended daily chapel, and the college was a feeder for the church leadership. As the film states: “Beautifully inscribed over the door of the College are those words of Christ, ‘You Shall Know the Truth and the Truth shall make You Free.’” Rather than emphasize the roles that Alborz graduates played in Iranian society, as do most scholars, the film professed to American donors that students at the mission school “have been made free through the Truth which you have sent them.” The Alborz experience was thus a product of evangelical mission and educational modernism, all of which is depicted in “Parviz Goes to College.”
G.I. Jimmie Meets the Iran Mission
“G.I. Jimmie Meets the Iran Mission” is a 32-minute silent film with stunning color footage of Tehran during the Second World War. The Anglo-Soviet invasion of 1941 unseated Reza Shah Pahlavi for his young son, Mohammad Reza (r. 1941-79). Soon thereafter, 30,000 U.S. troops with the Persian Gulf Command joined the Allied occupation to, among other things, facilitate the shipment of Lend-Lease aid from the Persian Gulf to the Soviet Union. The Elder family – John, Ruth, and their children pictured below – compiled the footage c. 1945 to highlight the Iran Mission’s contributions to the U.S. war effort. Think of it as the Iran Mission’s Why We Fight.
“G.I. Jimmie” was a metaphor for the Americans of the Persian Gulf Command and an actual person named Jimmie Drake. He was a graduate of Ohio State University stationed with the 301st Army Service Forces at Tehran’s Camp Amirabad where he played trombone in the band. The Iran Mission’s cameras documented life at Camp Amirabad, where the “insignia of the P.G.C. was the sword of Iran and the star of Iraq.” Whether one considers Jimmie Drake or metaphorical “G.I. Jimmies,” in wartime Tehran “it was just too much ‘G.I.’” It was “G.I. this and G.I. that, G.I. shoes and G.I. hat, G.I. brush and G.I. comb, and G.I. wish that I were home.”
According to the film, “A certain G.I. named ‘Jimmie’ heard of an American Mission and decided to investigate.” He found the PCUSA’s Iran Mission, whose homebase was “Central Compound” in downtown Tehran, “a strip of desert that now blossoms like the rose.” There is beautiful footage of the walled-in garden in springtime, with the Alborz Mountains keeping watch over trees in full bloom. Missionary families gathered on the lawn, lived in the residences, and worshipped in the chapel. Upon Jimmie’s arrival, he “goes to church, and finds friends.” Many were students at the Iran Mission’s Community School – then located on Central Compound – where he directed the student band and posed for pictures with the Elder children. These images come from an Elder family oral history, conducted in 2010 and titled Growing Up in Iran, which offers textual support from the PHS archives for the film.
The film notes that Jimmie’s tour guide was “Joey [Elder], a ‘missionary kid,’” and some of the most interesting scenes come from this “tour” of Iran’s occupied capital city. Joey showed Jimmie “the lovely decorative arches,” built in 1939 on the occasion of Mohammad Reza Shah’s marriage to an Egyptian royal, and they watched the flags of Imperial Iran and the Kingdom of Egypt fly in the breeze. Jimmie also “sees primitive shops and beautiful modern buildings,” and he “admires the tile work in the city’s grandest mosque.” Houses of worship and government offices are juxtaposed with butcher shops, fruit vendors, and jubes, and there are street scenes in which women in chadors move about the city’s boulevards with pedestrians, cyclists, and automobiles. Vehicles marked “USA” were visible for all to see, as were the uniformed troops that marched down thoroughfares and climbed on statues. Indeed, the film shows that Tehran had everything: “troops from India and Iran, sheep and buses, jeeps and droshkies, holy men and peddlers, heat and snow.”
After the end of the Second World War in 1945, it would not have helped the missionaries to boast in Iran of their coziness with the U.S. military or of their role in the unpopular occupation. Therefore, the goal of the film was to drum up stateside support for a revived evangelical effort in postwar Iran. The film was screened in American churches, especially in 1946, when Ruth Elder was on furlough and as Iran became one of the first flashpoints of the early Cold War.
The below screenshot, which maps one of the routes that Americans took from New York to Tehran, is a reminder of U.S. global power and the PCUSA’s reach in the mid-twentieth century. The combination of hard and soft power that extended U.S. influence into countries such as Iran, and the lifestyles of Americans abroad prior to the era of decolonization, are both evident in the films. But most Americans never made the trip to Iran. In the 1930s and 1940s, before mass air travel, films such as “Parviz Goes to College” and “G.I. Jimmie Meets the Iran Mission” were imperfect bridges that shortened the cultural distance between the United States and “Iran.” The digitization of these films for the internet age has ensured that they continue to serve a similar function in the twenty-first century, though in a different geopolitical context.
In addition to their research value, both films make great teaching tools. “Parviz” is a primary source on Alborz College that can be placed in many disciplinary frameworks and coupled with the Iranian Studies scholarship, the Lafayette in Persia website, and Ali Gheissari’s Memorial Volume. “Jimmie” is a primary source on the Second World War and, because it is silent, teachers can lecture on the relationship between war, diplomacy, and religion as students are transported back to historic Tehran. Supplemental primary sources could include documents on the Tehran Summit, which brought Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin to the city in late 1943; the U.S. Army’s Pocket Guide to Iran, published that same year for the Persian Gulf Command; and subsequent government studies of the so-called Persian Corridor.
Finally, both films highlight the strength of the PHS Pearl Digital Archive, especially the audio-visual holdings on Iran. One can peruse the collections of the Shedd and Elder families, study the papers of Marie Gillespie and Rolla Hoffman, and read interviews with Iran Mission careerists and Community School students. Increasingly, researchers, teachers and students, and the general public can use these sources to understand the complicated history of the PCUSA’s Iran Mission.
 Members of the Alborz faculty promoted the college in the United States, and on at least one occasion Herrick Young screened the film at a church. “Films Depict Life at College in Persia,” The Mercury (Pottstown, PA), November 21, 1935. See also “Missionary Society to See Alborz College Film,” The Scranton Republican (Scranton, PA), December 4, 1936. Both available at Newspapers.com.
 Newsletter, Witherspoon Building, Philadelphia, October 10, 1934, in PHS Foreign Missionary Vertical Files Index, Mary Jordan 360-74-3. See also the Alborz College data file in PHS at PAM.FOL.LG291.T4A4d.
 Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979); Hamid Dabashi, Persophilia: Persian Culture on the Global Scene (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015).
 The film unfortunately does not provide additional information about Parviz.
 The bust was made in 1948 and the photographs are in PHS Foreign Missionary Vertical Files Index, Samuel Jordan 360-74-2.
 Growing Up In Iran (1924-1951): Reminiscences of five daughters and sons of Ruth (Roche) Elder and John Elder, located in the Elder Family Papers, PHS-17-0714. This oral history was recorded by Jack Tiffany on August 2-3, 2010 with Miriam (Elder) Hilton, Alice (Elder) Leake, Joseph Elder, David Elder, and Louise (Elder) Lund.
 For photographs of Tehran from the period, see Mahmoud Pakzad, Old Tehran (Tehran, 2003).
 “First Presbyterian Guild to Hear About Iran,” The Sunday News (Ridgewood, NJ), March 31, 1946; and “First Presbyterian Guild Meets ‘G.I. Jimmy in Iran,’” The Sunday News (Ridgewood, NJ), April 7, 1946. Both available at Newspapers.com.