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Image Entertainment presents

Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927)

"For such is the law of the Jungle-Death to the weaker, food for the stronger."- From the intertitles

Stars: Kru, Chantui
Other Stars: Nah, Ladah, Bimbo
Director: Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack

Manufacturer: WAMO
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (killing of endangered species)
Run Time: 01h:09m:19s
Release Date: 2000-11-21
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB+A- B+


DVD Review

Although it was a highly popular and profitable travel film of its day, Chang would probably be quite forgotten today if not for the film that its directors, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, went on to make six years later: King Kong. Although there is no horror or sci-fi content to this film, the exotic jungle locations and the slightly mysterious air found in Chang have a direct relationship to the big ape's film.

Shot as a semidocumentary, Chang concerns the efforts of Kru, a Lao pioneer in the jungle, to grow his rice and fend off the wild animals that maraud his farm and kill his livestock. These include leopards, tigers, and in a bravura display of filmmaking, an entire herd of rampaging elephants. The theme is clear: man and nature are in an endless struggle with each other, and although nature will always win, man has no choice but to continue the struggle.

I refer to this as a semidocumentary, because the style that Schoedsack and Cooper used (as perfected in 1925's Grass, also released by Image on DVD under the Milestone label) was to go into the wilderness and observe events; they would then recreate the most notable and dramatic events for the camera rather than shoot them as they happened. While this would be considered poor documentary filmmaking today, it was considered par for the course in the 1920s, and certainly led to some dramatic footage. Although the various rampages of the animals are staged, there is also a sense of immediacy present, because although the events could be set in motion, they couldn't always be properly controlled. As noted in the commentary, when a mother elephant comes to rescue the baby elephant which is tied to a stilt of Kru's house, the mother was supposed to cause some damage. Instead, she utterly demolished the entire house. The climactic elephant stampede, shot in part from a pit in the ground that had been prepared, is the model for countless such scenes in films since, for it conveys a sense of being present that could be obtained effectively in no other way.

In some ways, this could be looked on as a sort of snuff film. It's more than a little difficult for the viewer today to see endangered species such as the tiger and leopard shot and killed repeatedly forthe sake of the film. This did, however, appear to be a necessity for the way of life of the Lao farmers of the period, and thus is at least understandable if not entirely excusable. Sensitive animal lovers and PETA members will definitely not want to watch this film. It's odd to see this slaughter juxtaposed with the anthropomorphizing of other animals, such as Bimbo the pet gibbon, who is given several lines of dialogue!

The native cast is only very slightly affected in their performances; overall they appear to be quite oblivious of the camera (as the titles note, they have never seen a motion picture, which no doubt helped the naturalistic portrayals). The photography is uniformly attractive and at times breathtaking; Schoedsack's camera somehow keeps pace with a running leopard and keeps at a uniform distance from it as well. A number of jittery shots betray the handheld nature of much of the film, but this just underscores the immediacy of the film.

Chang is an interesting little film of a bygone era. Its title was intentionally kept cryptic until about the middle of the film. One can only wonder with amusement at what kind of travelogue 1933 filmgoers were expecting when they saw the equally cryptic title King Kong from these same producers.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The picture appears to be a recycled laserdisc transfer. The running speed is slightly too fast, giving the film quite unnatural action and contributing to the extremely short running time. The source print suffers from scratches and wear, but has very good blacks and quit nice detail. The main titles are thoughtfully windowboxed to avoid loss of information. The intertitles appear to be the originals from the 1927 release. There is a brief video freeze at the end of the scene of shooting the leopard, but overall the condition of the image is quite acceptable. The technicolor excerpts in the supplemental section are delicately beautiful.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0n/ayes

Audio Transfer Review: The audio is a 1991 recording composed by Bruce Gaston and performed by his Fong Naam Orchestra, derived from classical Thai themes. It suits the exotic nature of the film exceedingly well, and is given a good stereo reproduction with passable separation. Hiss and noise are nonexistent, and I heard no distortion. Although there is not much in the way of deep bass here, the audio is not overly compressed sounding.

Audio Transfer Grade: A- 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 14 cues and remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Film historian Rudy Behlmer, with interview excerpts with director Merian C. Cooper
Packaging: Snapper
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Technicolor test footage and brief behind the scenes shots
  2. Reproduction of original press kit.
Extras Review: The main feature is accompanied by a knowledgeable commentary by film historian and author Rudy Behlmer; he had interviewed Merian C. Cooper in 1966 regarding Chang and other topics, and portions of these taped interviews are included in the commentary at the appropriate spots. Between the two we get a very intriguing look into the primitive world of travel films and rough-and-ready documentaries in the 1920s. A two-screen bio of Behlmer is included.

In the 1950s, apparently there were thoughts of rereleasing Chang (though Cooper denies it in the commentary), for about three minutes of footage were painstakingly hand-colored as a test. All of the extant color footage (including a brief bit of the elephant stampede) is included on this disc, as is a brief behind the scenes shot of Cooper and Schoedsack. These are accompanied by narration from Behlmer.

Wrapping up the package is a reproduction of the press kit on the disc. Unfortunately much of the text material is not easily readable on the screen, allowing one at most a gist of the selling methods from the story headlines. Although the case refers to a production essay, I was unable to find such a feature on the disc.

Extras Grade: B+

Final Comments

A highly influential and at the time popular semi-documentary gets an attractive transfer with a very informative commentary. A slightly too fast running speed detracts somewhat, but this is overall a recommended package despite the brief running time.

Mark Zimmer 2000-11-28