Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness

And now for something completely different: Chang (Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, to give it its full title) is a movie by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedscack.
Those names may sound a little familiar to your ears: you’ve probably heard of their other movie, King Kong: The Eighth Wonder of the World.

Chang was released in 1927, a full six years before King Kong and it’s a silent movie.
Chang is set in Siam and tells the story of a family who lives near the rest of the tribe (who live in a village). One day the family’s harvest is ruined by a Chang. That’s when we learn our first word of Siamese: ‘chang’ is local lingo for ‘elephant’.
A baby elephant falls in a trap and Kru, the family’s father, wants to tame the little Chang.
The idea to tie the little Chang to the stilted house is not the best idea ever, it soon turns out: mama Chang is coming to release her baby and, while she’s at it, destroys the house. Then – elephants really want to make their point, it seems – a herd of elephants visit the village and destroy it completely.
The villagers then decide to tame the animals. Well, if they can trap them first…

Chang is presented as an unstaged documentary. Really? Half of the shots in the movie cannot even be explained if the movie had been unscripted and unstaged.
However, Chang does manage to entertain, scripted or not, and it’s especially nice to watch this if you bear in mind the same people would make King Kong six years later…

As I’d mentioned before, Chang presents itself as a documentary rather than a movie. The movie is 80 years old now and our seasoned eyes are ruthless: most of those shots have to be scripted, unless they had seven camera crews working day and night.
A very funny scene is where we’re told the leopard visits the home again. Well, actually, I think it’s the same shot they’ve used again.

The truth is, the raw footage of the movie is real. The animals walking in the jungle were filmed there and the rest of the movie was shot around this footage, with the help of local people.
Kru is a local villager, his wife also lived in this village but was not his wife in reality.
The entire village helped shoot this movie which may be staged, but is staged around events that may have happened before in the village or could happen any day.

What I did find particularly annoying was the anthropomorphisms in the movie: the family’s pet monkey (you’ll see Bimbo on the cover image) occasionally is given a few lines, like “Everything looks weird like this.” (when Bimbo is hanging upside down) or, when the family is fleeing from mama Chang and Bimbo is still in the house, “Hey everyone, don’t forget Bimbo!”
Even the baby bear in the movie ‘asks’ its mother to tell a bedtime story, but when the mother tells a story in her own way (i.e. mother and infant are seen fighting) the little bear concludes “You’re the worst mommy ever.”
This may have worked 80 years ago for a world that still had to go global, but in this day and age I found it a childish extra.

That said, when Bimbo is chased by the elephant mother, it’s once again clear how the movie is staged: it’s obvious that’s Bimbo is on a platform that’s being pulled at high speed. But this does give you the idea there really is a chase going on.

That is what makes Chang so interesting: it’s an obvious blueprint for King Kong and if you think the 1933 movie is still the best version around you should try and see Chang, which – despite its shortcomings – will be entertaining.
Yes, it’s quite outdated, but even now we’ll still give it an A for effort.


P.S. A friendly warning: if you try and watch this movie, try to avoid the French version (I saw it on VHS, but I assume the same will go for the DVD): the font on the pancartes is very small and quite hard to read.


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