Cooper & Schoedsack’s King Kong is being remade (again), but they have two achievements that will never be duplicated: Grass (1925) and Chang (1927), both recently released on DVD for the first time.
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.
- Audio commentary with historian Rudy Behlmer
- Audio interview with Merian C. Cooper
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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 jokey 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 somewhat 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.
Contributions to Human Endeavor
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.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies