In 1925, eight years before Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack unleashed King Kong on the moviegoing public, they began filming a very different movie, mostly deep in the jungle between Laos (then Lan Xang) and Thailand (then Siam).
Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, a silent action-adventure film masquerading as a documentary, was made without actors or trained animals. The cast was made up of Lao villagers and untamed jungle animals, including a tiger, a leopard, and a herd of elephants.
The 60-minute film focuses on the life of a Lao carpenter named Kru, his wife Chantui, son Nah, and daughter Ladah, and their daily struggle for survival. (The actors weren’t related but became a family for the movie.) We see Kru and his people hunting tigers, luring leopards into hidden pits, and trapping and attempting to domesticate a herd of elephants.
The tiger scenes were filmed, at risk to Cooper’s life, in Nan Province. The elephant scenes were shot in Chumphon in southern Thailand. After a hundred mile march, the actors and their families were taken there, via Bangkok, on a train that passed the ocean; they had previously seen neither railroads nor the sea.
In Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, locals remain rightly enthusiastic about Chang. It still captivates audiences of tourists at free nightly screenings. at the Sanctuary Hotel or the Victoria Xiengthong Palace.
Watching Chang projected on the wall of the hotel is like peeking through a portal into a lost world, a time when humans needed protecting from the jungle and its creatures and not the other way around. The viewer is transported.
In many ways, Chang is a lot like a modern reality television show. It follows a clearly devised plot made up of staged incidents enhanced by exaggerated expressions of shock, fear ,and cunning from Kru and his family. As a documentary in the modern sense, Chang is dubious—but as a drama that documents, it is a triumph.
In one key scene, several hundred elephants stampede through the jungle, kicking up dust in their wake. Back then, Laos was known as the Land of a Million Elephants, but today less than 800 remain in the wild and far more are kept in captivity as tourist fodder. The 30-second elephant charge in Chang is unlikely ever to be replicated again in Southeast Asia; certainly it won’t be in Laos.
Light relief in Chang is provided by Bimbo, Kru’s family’s pet gibbon, whose “human” characteristics are emphasized for comic effect. While Bimbo is no mega-primate, he is given a starring role in the movie, hinting at Cooper and Schoedsack’s fascination with the human-primate relationship. They would explore this further in their Sumatran film Rango (1931), the story of a pet orangutan that sacrifices itself to save the boy who owns it. And then, of course, came Kong.
Cooper and Schoedsack’s first widely seen collaboration was the early documentary Grass (1925), which they made with the reporter (and professional spy) Marguerite Harrison in 1924. Depicting the annual migrations of the Bakhtiari tribe of herdsman under harsh climatic conditions in southern Persia, it was more of an artistic than a commercial success.
The film made such an impression in Hollywood that Jesse L. Lasky financed the partners to make Chang for Paramount. It was the project that began their transition from ethnographers to makers of fictional adventure films.
Remarkably, Cooper and Schoedsack shot Chang with a manually operated, fixed-focus camera. Close to the action at all times, they filmed from the branches of trees and from inside camouflaged pits. Schoedsack, the malaria-stricken main cameraman, got close-ups of snarling tigers, the stampeding elephants, and the slaughter of a leopard while Cooper covered him with a game rifle.
“Considering how difficult it is for film productions to shoot in Laos today, filming in the jungle ninety years ago certainly would have been a massive undertaking,” says Gabriel Kuperman, the founder and director of the Luang Prabang Film Festival.
“Not only would roads and infrastructure have been comparatively nonexistent, but, of course, they had to shoot on real film using much more difficult and delicate film equipment than is available to filmmakers today,” Kuperman continues. “This makes the film all the more impressive.”
Chang was released in 1927 after an 18-month shoot in the jungle and, in 1929, was nominated as a Unique and Artistic Production for the inaugural Academy Awards. It had proved only a modest box-office success, but the $2 million it grossed at the box office was enough to secure Cooper and Schoedsack the funding they needed to put a giant ape on the Empire State Building in 1933.
Despite its Oscar nomination and the initial acclaim, Chang never amassed the fans or the cult following of King Kong. In Hollywood, the movie is reported to have been lost for several decades before it was rediscovered and remastered in the 1980s. The original score composed by Hugo Riesenfeld, who wrote music for silent films directed by Cecil B. DeMille and F.W. Murnau among others, was never found. Happily, Chang is now screened with an authentic Lao score.
In his thrilling account of the making of Chang in his 1979 book The War, the West, and the Wilderness, the film historian Kevin Brownlow observed that Chang “was no more a documentary than King Kong” but “the audience picture supreme. Its slow start lulls them into condescension; its savagery takes them unawares. The rhythm builds, with sights unfamiliar despite the hundreds of wildlife pictures since, to a climax that belittles such publicity terms as stupendous.’ As a piece of film craft, it is masterly and stands beyond [the era’s] other documentaries in that regard. But since it was not an unrehearsed record of real life, it was hard to categorize, harder still for historians to praise. Chang, overshadowed in Cooper and Schoedsack’s career by King Kong, was cast aside, to join the ever-growing legion of lost films.”
Whether Chang‘s drama detracts from it’s legitimacy as bona fide salvage ethnography is debatable. But because it captures moments in the lives of Lao people nearly a century ago and a landscape now entirely altered by deforestation and tourism, it’s impossible to disregard it’s value..
Chang is available on DVD from Milestone Films and Amazon.