Chances are good you’ve never heard of this movie—and they’re even better that you’ll have trouble tracking it down, but it will be well worth the hunt if you do. Chang is a landmark pseudo-nature film from the end of the silent era (1927), and tells the story of a family of homesteaders in northern Siam (modern Thailand) trying to make a home in the jungle wilderness. It chronicles their many efforts to conquer the land and its animal occupants. The same directing team went on to make King Kong in 1933 (even less of a nature film!) and the two films have plenty in common, not least of all, a healthy thirst for adventure. The composition of Chang is two parts nature film, one part anthropological film, and seven parts action. I won’t spoil it by giving too much away, but the leopards, tigers, and stampeding herd of angry chang (the mystery beast) are the real stars of the film.
Chang is historically important in that it straddles the sometimes-vague line between documentary filmmaking and narrative storytelling. The filmmakers narrate the story as if their cameras were proverbial flies on the wall, but it is clear there is some orchestration of events going on: the cameras are too omniscient to catch all the action by mere happenstance. However, some of the shots are too ridiculously dangerous or unpredictable to have been planned, maintaining a certain sense of spontaneous filmmaking. And there aren’t any special effects in the film—however entertaining or unbelievable, what you see is most surprisingly what you get.
(The following review, prepared for an encyclopedia of the documentary film, is included here as an example of a slightly more specialized approach to films that contain family interest.)
Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's Chang is an extraordinary entertainment,
as well as a document of real people doing real things in real places. In part
because of its considerable craft, it leaves a vivid record of its time and
setting, or at least of an engineered perception of same. If its commercial
motivations and narrative contrivances ultimately reduce its strictly documentary
value and status, then it remains of great interest and importance in the history
of both the documentary and the commercial fiction film. Drawn
more by storytelling impulse and profit motives than by a concern for culture or the salvaging of disappearing practices, Cooper and Schoedsack's innovation and accomplishment with this picture was to bring the verve and contrivance of show business definitively into the documentary mix.
Chang was shot and set in Siam (modern Thailand). It tells the story of a family of Lao tribesmen homesteading on the outskirts of a Siamese settlement, trying to subdue the jungle and fight off its fierce creatures while they eke out a living. The plot of the film was substantially formed in Cooper's head before he ever reached Siam, and its central aim was to entertain while taking advantage of a novel and exotic setting. Preparations in country were devoted to embodying the producers' preconceptions.
For all of its undoubted imposing from the outside, the record indicates that
there was also much of improvisation and openness, even of collaboration in
Shoedsack-Cooper's production method. As a result, there was some little documentary
detail in the film's fictional representations. We have a vivid if
glancing representation of the fictional family's domestic arrangements and agricultural practices. There were also events, like that of the mother elephant pulling the house down as she rescued her baby, that emerged spontaneously during preparations, and which were then reenacted for the camera. It is certainly true—and here the producers' deepest interests are most in evidence—that the details of the film's many hunting sequences, the traps and dummies and deadfalls and flights, are reflective of real processes and
Mostly, though, these details remain ornamental in, even incidental to the film; in the end, the show's the thing. Cooper had sold the idea of the film to studio executive Jesse Lasky on the basis of what he called his "chariot race," an envisioned climactic sequence where a few hundred elephants break loose and destroy the village before being captured. Cooper's reference to Ben Hur's spectacle is significant. Where a contemporary documentarian like Robert Flaherty spent years achieving a kind of intimacy with his subjects [cf. Nanook of the North 1922 and, in different, complicated ways, Moana 1926), Cooper and Schoedsack arrived in Siam and immediately started hunting tigers.
With all these calculations and preconceptions, it follows that there are things for which the film has been taken to task. Faux-pas, insensitivities and cultural missteps rather abound. Like Flaherty, there were occasions in which Schoedsack-Cooper placed their actors (including the children) in harm's way for the sake of their story. Even if this jeopardy was inadvertent and sincerely regretted, it could not claim the justifications of salvage ethnography. A modern spectator is also struck by the amount of animal mayhem in the film. Cooper mentions that the custom had been to kill animals in their traps, and it is true that attempts were made, with some success, to preserve the lives of some of the animal subjects. Still, notwithstanding this Hatari-like preservation, it is clear that a number of beasts were rather indiscriminately harmed during the picture's production.
Though very well received at the time of its release, even contemporary reviews took consistent exception to the film's alternately stilted and anthropomorphically facetious titles. ("The very last grain of rice is husked, O very small daughter," says the noble native. "Give him hell, boys!" says the ribald talking gibbon.)
More seriously, Chang reflects and implicitly countenances the subservience and sometimes oppression adhering to colonial relations. These are evident in the treatment of the animals, which might be seen as having a metonymic relation to the Siamese themselves. With the many beasts—stock, pets, fauves—we find condescension, domestication, destruction. The fate of the elephants is especially significant in this regard; they are taken from their habitat, run and driven, contained in corrals and ultimately subdued in order to perform labour for their masters. Unlike Flaherty, who tries to excise Europe completely, Cooper-Schoedsack, albeit inadvertently and in a displaced manner, place conquests and the colonial conundrum right in the middle of their picture.
But do we overreach? These are difficulties all, or at least they can be looked at as such. But each count also contains interest and instruction. In the face of all this it is well to remember that Chang is the product of its time, and that much of the ethnographic etiquette, the common intercultural practices we now take for granted can not fairly be expected of its producers. It is well to consider the good that they intended, and accomplished.
It is clear that Cooper-Schoedsack were motivated by more than just commercial
considerations. They encountered numerous technical challenges during the production
of the film, and their recollections suggest that much of their motivation and
satisfaction came from the successful solution to these
difficulties. Besides the normal complications of production, they had to find ways to trap the wild cats without having to kill them, to make a tiger attack, to shoot said attack without endangering the cameraman, and to trap a herd of elephants.
As they would show later with King Kong, Cooper-Schoedsack demonstrated remarkable ingenuity and aplomb in solving each of these problems. As with Robert Flaherty (or Werner Herzog), the adventure of production was at least as important as the adventure portrayed in the production. What they were creating at this time of irresistible technological expansion and late colonial relations was a kind of popular-mechanics cinema, a Tom Swift-like boys' fantasy built on and reflective of real relations and technological conditions. The film, for good and ill, reflects the enthusiasms and insensitivities of its time. The influence, and continued presence of these incomplete, essential sensibilities should not be underestimated.
With few exceptions the serious, groundbreaking, critically validated documentary film would not follow in Chang's manic steps. Nevertheless it has very many descendants, and its good natured absurdity and superbly sneaky sleights of hand are echoed in a great many diverse places. They are in Jean Painlev's surreal scientific films. They prefigure, as Kevin Brownlow has observed, Walt Disney's True Life Adventures, and in some ways the films of Arne Sucksdorff as well. Its traces are found in any number of large format nature films that couch cinematic spectacle in real natural appreciation and wonder.
Though contemporary audiences largely seem to have taken Chang at
face value, the lens it turned on its subjects was not so much a window as a
mirror. The reflection is gauche, guileless, blithe, boyish, ultimately attractive.
Chang is emblematic of a great deal of commercial cinema: though there
in it to criticize, we may finally find it difficult, and too delightful, to dismiss.
Behlmer, Rudy, “The Adventures of Merian Cooper,” in Register to the Merian C. Cooper Papers, ed. James V. D’Arc, Provo, Department of Special Collections/College of Fine Arts and Communications, 2000.
Behlmer, Rudy, “Merian C. Cooper,” in Films in Review, vol. 17, no. 1, Jan. 1966, 17-35.
Brownlow, Kevin, The War the West and the Wilderness, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1979.
Cooper, Merian C., Grass, New York, Putnam, 1925.
Cooper, Merian C., “Mr. Crooked,” in Asia magazine, vol. 27, no. 6, June 1927, 477-81, 504-516.
Cooper, Merian C., “The warfare of the jungle folk: campaigning against tigers, elephants, and other wild animals in Northern Siam,” in National Geographic, vol. 53, no. 2, Feb. 1928, 233-68.
Mould, D.H., and G. Veeder, “The Photographer-Adventurers: Forgotten Heroes of the Silent Screen,” in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 16, no. 3, Fall 1988.
Turner, George, ed., The Cinema of Adventure, Romance and Terror, Hollywood, The ASC Press, 1989.