CHANG – A Drama of the Wilderness

The Mekong River bends like a double jointed elbow around the peninsula on which sits the enchanted city of Luang Prabang. Now, quite near the point of the elbow, nestled among the gilt Wats, the peeling Godowns and shuttered shops, the charabancs and bicycles, bamboos and water reeds, the chai stalls and sickly sweet sugar cane presses, stands a former Royal Palace, once the domain of the blue blooded aristocrats, now a swank hotel, and the haunt of the well heeled parvenū.

We had cooled our heels and parked our gnus and dined at a local eatery on the river, mosquito coils smoking under the table, cats on top of it, watching the sun go down like thunder over India across the Bay.

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The Mekong changed colours rolling from one to the next in a wonderful display, and as the darkness erased the lights the Palace drew us like a magnet, with the promise of a screening of a little known classic silent film

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CHANG turned out to be rollicking good fun, a rip snorting, ball tearing, jaw dropping, gasp inducing silent documentary style film made in 1927, shot by two extraordinary young Americans, Merian C Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, in Northern Siam based around Kru, a Laotian rice farmer and hunter, his wife Chantiu, their children and tribe and their eternal struggle with nature, the fickle elements and the ravenous creatures of the jungle.

They lived happily but frugally, an idyllic but also often harrowing and tenuous existence, at the mercy of the jungle.

Tigers would steal into their compound and make merry with  their goats and poultry.

Every now and then one of the tribe would be dragged into the jungle and snacked on.

There were terrified chaps being chased up trees

By simply ENORMOUS tigers.

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Sometimes the whole family (including the family pet gibbon, Bimbo) would be chased by a Blakian metaphor burning brightly and licking its chops just a few feet behind them.

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Plainly this state of affairs could not continue.  The Village elders were consulted.

The way too cute children and gibbons were considered.

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And it was felt, quite rightly, that trapping and killing the beast was the only solution.  So they did, using an amazing combination of traps, snares, nets, covered holes in the ground, scarecrows, drums, spears, machetes and lots and lots of really quite sharp bamboo sticks.

Eventually they just shot him, then proceeded to mock him and prod him, as you do.

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Then they skinned him, fricaseed him and fried him with some river weeds, chillies, and galangal and then used his skull as a very diverting and plainly amusing toy.  Such larks !

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They were mighty proud and happy and said things openly to each other that would get them into a terrible bind now-a-days.

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But were their troubles really over ?  No siree-bob they were not. For just as the rice crop was due to be harvested some clumsy big footed pachyderms came thundering through and stomped it all to pieces. The tribe were not happy.  Famine loomed.

These elephants (the eponymous Changs) were as big as Ocean Liners, and wandered the jungle in a huge herd, rolling like galleons on a tideless sea.

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In trying to sort these latter day Mammoths out the villagers had tried the old big hole in the ground covered in palm fronds routine.  It worked alright, but they only succeeded in capturing a baby elephant.

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When Mama elephant and the rest of the herd heard of this they went, perhaps understandably, beserk and rampaged through the village, flattening it.

What to do ? Our ingenious villagers built a great Kraal and, banging pots, waving flaming torches and shrieking, herded the elephants into it where they were eventually broken, tamed and trained to become helpmeets and pals of their new friends, our heroes, the villagers.

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Cooper and Schoedsack’s incredible film was nominated for an Academy Award.

( They lost to FW Murnau’s Classic “Sunrise”).

The film was largely shot with Schoedsack on the camera as Cooper stood over him with a loaded gun.

The animals used were all genuinely wild, NOT trained animals from Central Casting.

Cooper had already lived an extraordinary life.

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One night in the early 1930s he dreamt that a giant ape had destroyed New York.

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He got Fay Wray involved (seen here displaying pretty sensational pre-code pins)

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He had promised her the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, and so King Kong was born.  One of the planes being flown around Kong in the shot below was piloted by Cooper.

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It seems that there was a scene in the original cut of  King Kong where Kong shakes several sailors off of a log and they tumble into a ravine and are devoured by giant spiders.  The crowd at the test screenings were so shocked that they leapt from their seats and rushed out of the theatre, so Cooper personally got out the shears and cut the scene out.  A pity.

Cooper became best mates with John Ford and worked with Ford very closely in the production of The Quiet Man, The Informer, The Searchers and the American Trilogy.  And so ended another surreal and deliciously dream like evening in Luang Prabang.

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