Cast & Crew
On the jungle frontier of Siam lives Kru, with his family--his pet goat, a gibbon, and a water buffalo among others--laboring to plant and harvest the rice crop, while menaced on all sides by the jungle beasts. A leopard attacks his goat, and a tiger kills his water buffalo; Kru assembles neighboring warriors in an expedition against their predatory enemies, culminating in the kill of a giant tiger. Then Kru is plagued by the invasion of the dreaded Chang (the Siamese term for elephant), who destroy his little hut and the neighboring village. Kru organizes a massive hunt, and after the elephant herd is tracked down, the animals are driven into a corral and gradually domesticated for heavy labor. Kru, once more contented, returns to rebuild his house, though life still remains hazardous.
Cooper and Schoedsack used "The Three D's" to characterize their films: Distant, Difficult and Dangerous. Cooper, a former merchant marine and fighter pilot, and Schoedsack, a WWI newsreel cameraman, met in Vienna in 1918 and, four years later, began traveling together on photographic expeditions led by Captain Edward Salisbury. Opting to create an ethnographic film of their own, Cooper and Schoedsack traveled to Persia, where they photographed the annual migration of the Bakhtiari tribe in Kurdistan. The resulting film, Grass (1925), became such an unexpected critical and popular success that Jesse Lasky of Paramount Pictures agreed to finance another cinematic voyage of their choosing.
Journeying to the Siamese village of Nan, they befriended its inhabitants, learned the regional customs, then conceived a simple narrative about a family struggling to maintain its home and rice crop amidst the dangers of the treacherous jungle. The cast was made up of local villagers and the plot largely defined by the wildlife they were able to catch on film: pythons, tigers, leopards, monkeys and water buffalo.
But the most intriguing creature of all was the deadly "Chang," which seemed particularly ominous in the minds of the locals. The filmmakers preserved the mysterious nature of Chang throughout most of the film, until revealing its true identity near the climax: massive elephants that roam the jungles and trample any hut or field that happens to lie in its path.
The elephants were owned by (and under the protection of) the King of Siam and, just as in the film, the beasts were allowed to wander freely, at great risk to regional inhabitants. Payment of a considerable sum to Prince Yugala (the king's brother) enabled the filmmakers to rent the elephants for the production, and Chang was thus given the spectacular ending it so richly deserved. The elephants were rounded up and coaxed into a stampede, which Schoedsack filmed from within an underground bunker so that the herd presses down upon the viewer - a sequence that ranks as one of the most daring feats of location photography and still maintains its power to amaze.
Although Chang was filmed on location with a non-professional cast, it is not a documentary, at least not by contemporary definition. Unconcerned with ideas of objectivity and authenticity, Cooper and Schoedsack freely shaped the narrative, staged scenes and rebuilt the interior of the family hut to enable better filming. Comic relief was provided by Bimbo, a small trained monkey that was cast as the family pet. Their intention was not to make a purely ethnographic film but to craft a dramatic spectacle utilizing untamed natural resources. In fact, issues of objectivity were seldom discussed at the time since the term "documentary" had only been created the previous year, in a review of Robert Flaherty's South Seas drama Moana (1926), written by critic John Grierson (who would later become a documentarian himself).
When Chang was originally released, it was often presented in "Magnascope," a process in which the theater is outfitted with an enlarged screen and a wide-angle lens is attached to the projector. During climactic scenes - in this case, the elephant stampede - the curtains surrounding the ordinary-sized screen were parted to reveal a vastly enlarged image. Although Paramount's Adolph Zukor proclaimed it, "the greatest advance in projection during the past twenty years," Magnascope was never widely used. A handful of the studio-owned theaters employed the device sporadically for more than 25 years, until the invention CinemaScope became the industry standard for large-screen projection.
Six years after Chang Cooper and Schoedsack made a slightly autobiographical film about their adventures in exotic filmmaking. The ominous jungle creature at the end of this expedition was not a herd of elephants but a giant gorilla. In place of Chang there was Kong. Although they will always be remembered for producing and directing King Kong (1933), Chang better represents their true passion: not special effects created on tabletops in studio workshops, but effects achieved by placing a camera within reach of a fierce tiger or beneath the feet of a herd of elephants. In tribute to the film that sealed their reputations, Cooper and Schoedsack placed a tiny banner advertising Chang on the side of one of the subway cars seen during Kong's rampage through Manhattan.
In 1929 Chang was honored in the first Academy Awards ceremony ever held, nominated for the most prestigious award: Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Production). Curiously, the naturalistic Chang was competing against two brilliant Hollywood films that were so stylized and "constructed" on Hollywood backlots that one could almost call them synthetic: F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927) and King Vidor's The Crowd (1928). If nothing else, it proves that great cinema is not dependent upon material resources but upon the capable hands of imaginative filmmakers.
Produced, Directed and Edited by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack
Titles by Achmed Abdullah
Translated by Kru Muang
Cinematography: Ernest B. Schoedsack
Music Composed and Conducted by Bruce Gaston (1991), Performed by Fong Naam
Cast: Kru (The Pioneer), Chantui (His Wife), Nah (Son), Ladah (Daughter).
by Bret Wood
Grass & Chang on DVD - Grass & Chang - Two landmark films by Merian C. Cooper
A decade before King Kong, Merian C. Cooper, an adventurer and aviator, teamed with combat photographer Ernest B. Schoedsack. The two men, both Americans, met in Europe after World War I. They found they had similar dreams and complementary skills, and it wasn't long before they resolved to work together on an adventure film about human migration.
The result of their first collaboration is Grass, a true marvel of filmmaking. Cooper & Schoedsack followed the Baktyari tribe in what is now modern Iran and Turkey. The tribe subsists on their herd animals, which in turn live on the grass. But grass is not available in the same place year-round, so the tribe migrates hundreds of miles, across treacherous rivers and snowy mountains, twice a year, just to survive.
Grass is a truly great documentary -- not just "for a silent film" or "for an 80-year-old film," but on its own merits. The story is timeless, the drama is gripping, the photography is striking, and the settings are exotic. With the modern, flavorful, yet unobtrusive music track (recorded in 1991), it's easy to become engrossed and forget that Grass is a silent, black-and-white film. There is nothing quaint or antiquated about it.
It's also a more objective and honest documentary than, say, Nanook of the North, which uses a lot of staged events, including one notoriously hokey special effect, to tell its story.
Ironically, Cooper had hoped to make Grass more like Nanook. (Not literally. At this time, neither Cooper nor Schoedsack had even heard of Flaherty's movie.) They ran out of money after filming the great migration once. They had hoped to stick with the tribe long enough to film an individual family, whose story they would then intercut with the larger drama. But it wasn't to be, much to the eventual benefit of this film.
But perhaps it was Cooper's frustration at not getting the personal story that drove him to work on Chang, which was released two years later.
Like Grass, Chang is a travel film and an anthropology movie. But Chang allowed Cooper and Schoedsack to finally tell the personal story of a family. This time, they follow Kru, a Lao tribesman living in Siam (modern Thailand/Laos) in his fight for survival against the wild animals of the jungle.
Several factors pushed Cooper and Schoedsack to their new subject. First, says Cooper (joking?), they went from too little vegetation in Grass, to too much vegetation in Chang. But they were also looking for somewhere very remote, a place nearly untouched by civilization. It was a search that led both men out across the jungles of Asia. Ultimately, they chose to shoot Chang in a place that was 6 days by horse away from the nearest whites, Danish teak foresters, and 7 days away from the nearest telegraph and train station.
At first glance, Chang hasn't aged nearly as well as Grass. It's more obviously staged, and the constant presence of a comic-relief monkey smells of "selling" rather than "documenting." The on-screen killing of tigers and leopards is also troubling, particularly in this modern age of conservation and endangered species. (These same traits probably contributed to Chang's bigger box office.)
But the audio commentary by film historian and writer Rudy Behlmer puts the story in its proper historical and anthropological context. Cooper and Schoedsack lived with Kru's people for three months before rolling film. Once they knew what life was like, they were better able to document the drama of daily life. The tigers, leopards, and elephants really did pose a threat to the lives of these Lao people. As for the monkey sidekick, he really was Kru's pet.
Behlmer gives over part of his audio commentary to Merian C. Cooper himself, via an audiotaped interview from 1965. An extended version of the interview is available on the Grass DVD; it covers Cooper's story from World War I all the way through King Kong and beyond.
If you watch Chang closely, you can see harbingers of King Kong. A dangerous jungle plays home to mysterious, dangerous, and gigantic animals. There is a sense of exploration, discovery, and awe of the natural world. The climax of Chang involves a stampede of 400 elephants, and puny men trying to cage them with tools and brainpower. Even the popular appeal ("selling" rather than "documenting") of Chang, resonates in the scenes of Kong being brought to the Great White Way.
But while King Kong leaves itself open to remakes, Chang and Grass are unique, genuine documents of now-disappeared civilizations. Even in 1954, when Cooper considered remaking Chang, he found that civilization had encroached too far, and that cars and rifles had tipped the balance of the jungle hopelessly in man's favor.
As important as King Kong is to the history of film, Grass and Chang, which are documents as well as entertainments, will probably prove to be even greater contributions to the human endeavor.
For more information about Grass and Chang, visit Milestone Films.
by Marty Mapes
Grass & Chang on DVD - Grass & Chang - Two landmark films by Merian C. Cooper
In its original presentations certain sequences were projected in Magnascope. As part of the first Academy Awards, Chang received a certificate of honorable mention as a "Unique and Artistic Picture."