Merian C. Cooper had the eye of the tiger. Judge Mike Pinsky has the nose of the elephant.
"Give him hell, boys!"—Bimbo, the comedy relief monkey
Check out the cast list for Chang, Merian C. Cooper's accomplished follow-up to his debut documentary, Grass: "Kru, Chantui, Nah, Ladah, Bimbo, 500 native hunters, 400 elephants, tigers, leopards, and other denizens of the wild." Exotic enough for you?
Filmed in Thailand (when it was still called Siam), Chang stars "Natives of the Wild who have never seen a motion picture, Wild Beasts who have never had to fear a modern rifle, and The Jungle." Nature itself is a character. It is alive. The film's subtitle is "A Drama of the Wilderness." Does that preposition mean that this drama is set in the jungle? That it is about the jungle? That the jungle is the drama? The "great green threatening mass of vegetation" is the film's antagonist, locked in a struggle against humans.
Think ahead to Merian C. Cooper's most famous film, King Kong. Skull Island is a character in that film. Its natives, its dinosaurs, Kong himself as the embodiment of natural ferocity—civilization versus the wilderness, beauty versus the Beast.
After their successful first collaboration in Grass, Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack packed their cameras and headed for Siam for a 1927 adventure tale that masquerades as a documentary. Cooper has clearly studied Robert Flaherty this time around, crafting a rainforest version of Nanook of the North. How much of this chronicle of Lao villagers was captured impromptu and how much was staged? Historian Rudy Behlmer tells all, as he details the film's production on a commentary track that includes several audio clips from Behlmer's 1965 interview with Cooper in the twilight of his career (the full interview is included on the Grass DVD). It turns out that Cooper and Schoedsack, who got along well with the locals (most of whom had never seen a movie before), approached Chang with a rough script and then improvised when the animals would not cooperate.
The result improves upon their more distanced approach in Grass. Chang quickly establishes its characters, namely Lao family man Kru and his household (including Bimbo the monkey). The family story acts as the center of this film, giving the documentary elements a human quality that Grass lacked. Watch a leopard attack Kru's goats. Watch a tiger attack a buffalo. Watch a tiger chase cameraman Schoedsack up a tree (Whoa! He got a little too close there!). Watch the villagers hunt and kill marauding animals before your eyes. You may see Chang as a straight-ahead adventure tale, or as a relic of colonialism, with the natives taken rather less than seriously (some of the intertitles are a little silly). Is it cruel to kill all these animals, or is this a realistic depiction of survival? Chang plays both ways, which is what makes it even more interesting now than in 1927, when audiences never would have seen the actions of Kru and the villagers as problematic.
Actually, there are a lot of leopards and tigers in Kru's neighborhood. And goofy monkeys. (Of course, their antics prove my first rule of comedy: adding a monkey to a funny scene makes it funnier; adding a monkey to something unfunny is just pathetic.) The film's final act stages a massive "chang" stampede. You may know this jungle leviathan by its more familiar name: the elephant. Hundreds of them. And they crush the entire village, more or less on cue.
Chang was such a success in its time that Cooper almost remade it years later. You can see a clip from Cooper's 1956 colorized print of the original film, narrated by Rudy Behlmer. Neither a complete colorized version nor a remake ever happened, but you can see the influence of Chang on nearly every Hollywood jungle movie that came after it, especially the Tarzan series. You can also see it as the final step in Merian C. Cooper's career from real adventurer to creator of cinematic adventures. You know the rest of the story. 'Twas the beauty of Chang that created the Beast.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
• Commentary by Rudy Behlmer
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