Five years before King Kong mounted the Empire State clutching ‘golden woman’ Fay Wray in his car-sized mitt, director Merian C. Cooper rehearsed his abiding theme of savagery versus civilisation in a half-forgotten masterpiece of silent cinema. The 1927 film, co-directed with cameraman Ernest B. Schoedsack, is titled Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness. Every bit as edgy as King Kong, with considerably more charm, it’s a documentary-style fable about things that go wrong when we invade the wild. The beast at the heart of the tale—more menace than monster—is an elephant, for which the Thai name is chang.
Chang was nominated at the first Academy Awards in 1929 for a category, Best Unique and Artistic Picture, well worth reviving. The film would have been really something in its day, with an original score and an elephant stampede shot in an early form of widescreen. But as the pace of cinematic invention quickened—sound and colour were introduced in the 1930s—Chang was soon overtaken. And then pfft! Gone. The film went missing, largely unlamented—though not by its creators Cooper and Schoedsack—for the next six decades.
In 1988 a lone reel was discovered. But there was no sign of the score that would have been played by orchestras at every big city performance. How to make it sing, or at least speak, to a contemporary audience? In 2014 a shadow puppet theatre troupe based in the southern Lao town of Champasak found a way. It recorded a riotous soundtrack with voice parts for humans and creatures: a calf brays, a tiger roars, chicks go yip-yip-yip, and a gibbon named Bimbo just won’t shut up. I saw this version recently at an open-air cinema—a home projector and a few chairs in a moonlit hotel garden, a gin and tonic at my side and a handful of viewers around me—in the northern Lao town of Luang Prabang.
Most of the audience had melted into the night before the chaotic climax, but that can happen at a free early-evening viewing with the scent of spiced river fish steamed in banana leaf on the air. Enthusiastic applause came from the stalwarts. They included a middle-aged woman who spent the entire film hunched forward in rapt anticipation; I had thought it was an infirmity until she stood up straight at the film’s end.
Shot in the Thai jungle about 500 kilometres south-west of Luang Prabang, Chang is part wildlife documentary and part zoological dark comedy. Made with an entirely amateur cast of, as the spare opening credits put it, ‘natives of the wild who’ve never seen a motion picture’ and a menagerie of ‘wild beasts who have never had to fear a modern rifle’, the film anticipates both Italian neorealism and cinéma vérité.
Although Chang romps through the jungle at a furious pace—there’s a lot of slapstick as villagers scamper around in fear, flight or pursuit—Cooper returns us, time and again, to a tight domestic focus on Kru, a tribesman, his wife Chantui, their three children, and the garrulous Bimbo. From the family’s determination to make a life for itself beyond the main settlement, on the fringe of the jungle, the film draws its narrative drive and its inner life.
Chang is rather more nuanced than Kong, and certainly a lot quieter, but it’s clearly the work of the same cinematic imagination. The story Cooper told about a ‘50-foot gorilla’ and ‘a five-foot girl’ was a triumph of stop-motion special effects that are no longer special. In contrast Chang, filmed on a threadbare budget, has something of the meditative quality of a cinematic essay. Its subject is humanity’s relationship to nature and our tentative sovereignty of the elements that threaten to overwhelm us. Before the opening shot of a grainy dawn above virgin forest, a slightly cheesy inter-title evokes an equatorial genesis tale: ‘Before the most ancient civilisation arose, before the first city in the world was built, before man trod the earth—then, as now, there stretched across vast spaces of farther-Asia a great green threatening mass of vegetation … the jungle.’
Chang’s significance, 90 years after its release, lies not so much in its relevance as a dispiriting absence of relevance. The distance between its 1920s vision and twenty-first-century reality seems unbridgeable. Man and nature, as Cooper saw it, were two well-matched adversaries. When the villagers build a palisade of ‘jungle wood’ the construction is likened to steel, iron and copper, as if the jungles of Siam were a vast arboreal metropolis. The theme of parity is asserted in the closing inter-title: ‘Man, the intruder came to the jungle … He fought it … He never vanquished it … For strong is the jungle.’ But the natural world today has largely lost that battle: the jungles are disappearing; the oceans are warming; the air is fouled and the white poles are turning blue. Almost a century after it was made, there is no escaping the film’s unintentionally elegiac tone.
Merian Cooper’s life was an action film in abeyance. He served in the First World War as a bomber pilot, was shot down over enemy lines and spent the war in a German hospital with burn injuries. No sooner was the Great War over than he joined the volunteer Kosciuszko Squadron to fight for Poland in the Polish–Soviet War of 1919–21. Captured once again after his plane went down—he made a habit of walking away from plane wrecks—Cooper escaped from a Soviet prisoner of war camp and after a 700-kilometre trek to Latvia found freedom. He went on to serve in the Second World War in senior staff roles in Asia and the Pacific, and continued to make films at war’s end. In all he produced 67 films, among them Rio Grande (1950) and The Searchers (1956) with director John Ford. By the time of his death, in 1973, he’d been a Hollywood big shot with a small profile for four decades; his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame misspells his name as Meriam.
Cooper met cameraman ‘Monty’ Schoedsack at a Viennese train station in 1919. They teamed up at the end of the Polish–Soviet War on a journey to Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia), where they interviewed the future emperor Haile Selassie. On the way home they survived what Schoedsack later described as a ‘shipwreck’ on the Red Sea, after which they talked for days about what was and what might be. Their first cinema collaboration, titled Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life, documented the migration of the nomadic Bakhtiari—50,000 tribesmen and half a million animals—across central Asia. It took an entire year to scout for locations. The making of Chang, their second film, was if anything more arduous. The two arrived in Bangkok in 1924, journeyed 640 kilometres by waterway to the northern town of Nan, and walked for a week through the jungle to reach the Thai village where they would spend the next 18 months filming.
Cooper and Schoedsack later described their project as a ‘3-D’ adventure fusing distance with difficulty and danger. In the process they invented the expedition film. In a ‘tape letter’ for posterity recorded by Schoedsack late in life he admitted that Chang, despite Kong’s box office success, was ‘still our favourite picture because Coop and I made it out of a simple basic idea, man against jungle, with the raw material we found there and no help whatever’. Rather than press animals into the service of a script written by ‘a dope’ in a studio, he would ‘find out what the animal would do’ in a given scenario before writing its part into the story. The result is certainly not a documentary, let alone a mockumentary, but the bland appellation semi-documentary doesn’t do it justice. Cooper and Schoedsack’s instincts are cinematic, journalistic and ethnographic in equal measure.
The grand ideal of the director as adventurer, filmmaking as journey of discovery, provides the springboard for Kong five years later. The movie opens with director Carl Denham chartering a ship from Manhattan to the lost world of Skull Island somewhere off the coast of Sumatra: a forerunner of Jurassic Park. In one of the first sequences on the island that time forgot, Denham (Robert Armstrong) starts filming from cover as a tribe prepares to sacrifice a victim to the giant ape Kong. Denham is fired up by the urge to get that tribal rite down on film. ‘Boy, if we can only get a picture before they see us,’ he says with a crooked grimace as he parts a frond. ‘Hey, you with the camera,’ he barks. ‘Come here!’ There is more than a touch of Cooper and his newsreel instincts in that sequence.
Chang is playing at two cinemas at the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang. At the confluence of the Mekong and Nham Khan rivers, this former royal seat and spiritual centre is enfolded by foothills and forested with Buddhist temples. After the French annexation of Laos in 1893 and its incorporation into French Indochina, Luang Prabang was ornamented with solid French colonial administrative buildings—the Lao people had always built their homes on stilts. The colonial inheritance is a streetscape of arcaded porches, shuttered French windows, Chinese shophouses and Buddhist temples with tiled roofs that swoop to the ground from gilded pinnacles. The town has managed to preserve just enough of that French vibe to attract a cosmopolitan café culture. It’s full of people with tatts and extreme hair—or no hair—lingering over lattes and laptops.
Those of a more spiritual bent go to Luang Prabang (named after a revered icon of the Buddha called the Phra Bang) to give alms to the monks who file through the city in the monochrome of early morning, learn a little about Buddhism and meditation by day, and come nightfall head to any number of open-air bars à vins. Lan Xang is the old name for the Lao Kingdom that once spread across the Mekong valley from its capital of Luang Prabang, and it translates as ‘land of a million elephants and white parasols’, which is one reason why Chang has enjoyed a rebirth here. The parasol remains the sun protection of choice for Lao ladies riding bicycles and scooters, but the notional million elephants have been decimated by poaching and habitat loss. Some estimates put the number of elephants in Laos at about 850.
Chang is in one unsettling sense out of step with contemporary sensitivities about animal welfare. A one-sided gladiatorial contest between a leopard and a goat early in the film sets in train a series of hunt sequences. The feline predators become the hunted. The action sequences are filmed from the vengeful point of view of the villagers and in that region, in a five-year period around the time of filming, a great many of them—400 by some accounts—were killed by big cats.
Scarcity has sentimentalised wild things. The great twenty-first-century quest is to protect them from us. But in Chang the seemingly peaceable villagers take to the slaughter of their wild foes with alacrity, and their deaths are gleefully, voyeuristically captured on film. Schoedsack addressed this in his audio letter, though not very convincingly. He likened the killing of some ‘very dangerous leopards and tigers’ to the role of ‘a butcher in a slaughterhouse—just a necessary part of the job’.
As I paid my bill at Luang Prabang’s open-air cinema—the movie is free but you’re expected to buy a drink—I thought about the elemental challenges facing Kru’s family and those confronting our own: increasingly freakish hurricanes and floods, spiking temperatures, rising seas. The jungle may have lost its battle but strong, as Cooper with his fondness for biblical cadences might have put it, are the winds and the waters. And stronger still is the warming sun. As natural wilderness has receded, and in many cases disappeared, we’ve seen—are seeing—another kind of wild. Not wild as in remote, wild as in crazy.
Chang started its life as a cross between a documentary and a fable. It has become, in advanced age, a work of rare cinematic prophecy. Nature may have lost her fangs. But she still knows how to roar. •
Luke Slattery is an author, journalist and literary critic based in Sydney. His journalism and writing have been published in metropolitan media throughout Australia and internationally.