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Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness is a 1927 documentary (sort of, see entry below under Based on a Great Big Lie) made by Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, who later became very famous when they made King Kong. In this film Cooper and Schoedsack journey deep into the wilds of northern Thailand (then called Siam) to document the lives of the Lao people hacking out an existence in the jungle. The film centers around Kru, a Lao who, with his wife and three children, have built a house with their own hands in the wilderness, and are keeping a little farm. Kru and his family keep livestock and till a little rice paddy, while protecting their farm against the depredations of tigers and leopards. But when an elephant wrecks their home, Kru has to warn the village of a giant elephant herd that is putting them all in danger.

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Chang was a follow-up to Cooper and Schoedsack's previous hit film Grass. It was nominated for an Academy Award for "Unique and Artistic Production", one of two redundant Best Picture awards given at the first Oscars, the other being "Outstanding Production". The Unique and Artistic Production award, which was given to Sunrise, was never given again after that first ceremony. Chang remains the only (sort of) documentary to be nominated for (sort of) Best Picture.


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Tropes:

  • Animal Reaction Shot: Done with Bimbo the comedy monkey, including some shots where Bimbo's reaction is intercut with the unplanned sequence in which the elephant destroys the house.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: Everything in this movie was staged, with the locals working along with Cooper and Schoedsack to act out Cooper and Schoedsack's story. Most of the events with the animals were staged as well, by using either tamed animals (the elephant herd, which had to be coaxed to wreck the village) or animals that were trapped and released in order for the filmmakers to get a shot (the tiger that nearly ate Ernest Schoedsack). Kru was cast in the movie because he spoke English, and he doubled as the interpreter for Cooper and Schoedsack. (The woman identified onscreen as Kru's wife wasn't really his wife, although the kids actually were Kru's children.) And while the events in the movie were staged, they were at least a relatively authentic portrayal of life in northern Siam. The natives of the area really did live in raised huts, and they really did sometimes herd elephants into a krall and select some to tame.
  • Book-Ends: In the first scene Kru is chopping down a tree that he'll use in building his house. In the last scene, Kru is chopping down a tree to use in building his house, but with assistance from a tamed elephant from the herd that the villagers captured. Additionally, the same shot of the sun over the mountains is used in the first scene and the last.
  • Box-and-Stick Trap: The "deadfall" equivalent thereof, in which the falling trap is actually a heavy weight rather than a box—and in this case also equipped with sharpened wooden stakes. Constructed by the natives, but not used.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": No, "Chang" is not a person's name. All of the fake dialogue in the title cards is in English, except for the word Chang—Kru finds that a Chang has trampled his rice paddy, and the villagers set up a Pit Trap to catch the Chang. The film finally reveals that chang is the Thai word for "elephant".
  • Cassandra Truth: Kru, whose house has just been smashed by an elephant, comes to warn the village that a "Great Herd" of elephants is bearing down on them. No one believes him, and a village elder is laughing at him when the elephants come barreling out of the trees.
  • Caught in a Snare: A leopard is caught this way. A tiger is shot and killed after being caught in a variant of the snare trap in which the net falls down on the animal.
  • Determined Homesteader / Determined Homesteader's Wife: They're in Siam too, as Kru and family carve out their home in the jungle. Much of the film is structured like a Western, actually.
  • Down on the Farm: Or the southeast Asian equivalent thereof, as Kru and his family work their little farm in the jungles of Siam.
  • Everything's Better with Monkeys: "Bimbo", the family's pet monkey, who provides comic relief. In one scene he pulls a blanket off of the baby. In another he runs like hell while being chased by a leopard. In the end, Bimbo has acquired a mate and a baby of his own. There's also a pretty amazing shot in which one monkey scampers up a tree to avoid charging elephants, and proceeds to pull another monkey up on a rope.
  • Family-Unfriendly Death: Some may find the killing of tigers and leopards disturbing.
  • Gilligan Cut: See Cassandra Truth above.
    Elder: Only in your imagining is there this Great— [cut to elephants charging out of the forest]
  • Mama Bear: Kru takes the baby elephant home and ties it up, thinking that he'll tame it and put it to work. The mama elephant comes charging out of the forest and rescues her child. Cooper and Schoedsack had tied up the baby elephant in order to get this shot of Mama coming to the rescue. What they didn't anticipate is what happened next, as the mama elephant proceeded to tear Kru's hut to pieces.
  • Manipulative Editing: Pretty obviously. There's a scene in which a native is supposedly treed by a tiger. The tiger jumps, and there is a jaw-dropping shot in which the tiger very nearly touches the film camera with his nose. Then there's a cut to a long shot, showing the native up in the tree, with no camera in sight that could have taken the close-up. The closeup of the jumping tiger was taken by Schoedsack in a platform, and the tiger came so close because they underestimated how far the tiger could jump.
  • Mobile Shrubbery: The natives camouflage themselves with bushes as they herd the elephants across the river. This was Cooper and Schoedsack's idea and was conceived as a Shout-Out to Shakespeare, namely Macbeth. Apparently the natives working on the film loved the idea and said they'd keep doing that in the future.
  • Nature Is Not Nice: Life in the jungle as a struggle, with the jungle itself and all the animals in it out to kill you.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Averted, repeatedly, and on purpose. If you've ever wanted to see a tiger or leopard trapped and shot to death, this is the movie for you.
  • Pit Trap: The natives construct one. A baby elephant is trapped in one, and pulled out alive. A leopard is trapped in one, and promptly shot to death. In another scene, natives fleeing from the elephants just barely avoid falling into the Pit Trap.
  • Precious Puppies: Kru and family have a dog, which has a litter of puppies. They scoop up the puppies and take them upstairs to their hut at night, to prevent the puppies from becoming tiger snacks.
  • Ridiculously Cute Critter: Bimbo the monkey sure is cute.
  • Scenery Porn: Some amazing shots of northern Thailand. The long shot in which a herd of elephants crosses a river stands out. And some amazing shots of animals as well, like the scene where Schoedsack was perched in a tree platform 13 feet off the ground, and the tiger jumped about 12.5 feet, sticking his face in the lens. Or the ground-level scene of stampeding elephants, captured when Schoedsack got in a specially dug pit, and cranked his camera while the herd of elephants ran right over him.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The ridiculous "dialog" title cards, which even in 1927 were cited as a shortcoming of the film.
    "The very last grain of rice is husked, O very small daughter."
  • Tempting Fate: Kru says "Our troubles are over" after he captures a baby elephant, which he hopes to tame and use for work. Immediately after this the mama elephant shows up and destroys their hut.
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