Before Kong was King

Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack are best known as the creators of King Kong (1933). But before Kong was king, Cooper and Schoedsack were adventurers who produced a couple of terrific documentaries.

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925) and Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness (1927) are clear precursors to Kong, with their love of exotic locales and peoples.

Grass follows the journey of the Bakhtiari, a nomadic tribe in Persia (now Iran), as they herd their livestock over raging rivers and up almost vertical 15,000-foot mountain passes to get to their winter grazing lands.

The camera work is simple and effective, capturing the drama of the moment. The action is intense; people and animals get hurt and even die. The filmmakers nearly froze to death.

Grass is fascinating from a historical perspective, giving us a peek at a culture that was in stark contrast to the high-rolling Roaring Twenties in America, and a land that is now cut off from Westerners.

Chang shows growth in Cooper and Schoedsack’s filmmaking abilities. While Grass was a true documentary, Chang is a docudrama that is clearly staged in a number of places. Documentary filmmakers could not hope to get this kind of camera and story coverage. According to Robert Osborne’s commentary when it was shown on TCM, the climactic elephant rampage was filmed using miniature sets and adolescent elephants to make the action more exciting. Nevertheless, Chang appears to give a reasonably authentic representation of life in the jungles of Siam (now Thailand).

The story centers around Kru and his family as they cope with leopards, tigers, and elephants that attack their livestock and destroy their property.  The wild beasts are cavalierly captured and slaughtered. A baby elephant (called chang in the native language) is caught in a trap with the intention of training it for hard labor on the farm.

Despite the cringe-worthy scenes of animal cruelty (as seen through Western sensibilities), Chang is another fascinating historical examination of an exotic people and location that have been lost to modern development.

Taken together, Grass and Chang are groundbreaking movies. Schoedsack went on to direct a number of adventure movies, including his final film that tried to recapture the magic of King Kong, Mighty Joe Young (1949). Cooper went on to produce many adventure films, teaming with legendary director John Ford on a series of pictures in the 1950s. Cooper also was instrumental in producing most of the films shot in the Cinerama format (which were mostly Lowell Thomas travelogues).

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