Depressingly inspirational: 1920s film depicts a lost world

When I was given an old black and white silent film by my friend and colleague Paul Insua-Cao, who at the time was overseeing our work in Laos, I was sceptical that I would ever watch it, let alone enjoy it, or even be compelled to write about it. However, this previously unknown gem will both inspire and depress me as I undertake my work for Fauna & Flora International (FFI) in Asia.

The film is question is Chang: A drama of the wilderness (chang is Thai for elephant), and was made in 1927 by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who would later go on to make the 1933 classic King Kong. The 64-minute film follows a short period in the life of Kru, a Lao farmer, his family and his assorted pets, including Bimbo their incredibly human-like lar (or white-handed gibbon).

Set in northern Thailand, it opens under the premise that the jungle was there before man, man cannot conquer the jungle, the jungle consumes man’s efforts, but that man must live on, so man fights on.

The film’s opening scenes.

The film documents that although Kru builds a house, has livestock and grows crops, the jungle takes it all back as wild animals (tigers and leopards) kill his livestock and elephants come and destroy his crops and home. Despite Kru’s efforts in trying to stop this, it’s all to no avail and he has to give up his small farm and return to the village, which itself is then destroyed by the “great herd”, a mystical large herd of elephants from their grandfather’s time.

All extreme cases of human-wildlife conflict, but this is something FFI is still working on today.

Full of wildlife

Although the film is slightly slap-stick, as was the fashion at the time, and even though it’s clear that some of the wildlife sequences are staged using captive animals, the film does show a period in time when the jungles of Southeast Asia were full of wildlife. Unfortunately most of the wildlife we see is being hunted, but the number and range of species filmed, using (I assume) very basic equipment, is a real insight.

The headcount of tigers and leopards one actually sees being killed is alarming, but it does show how numerous animals in the jungle once were. To offset some of the more depressing hunting scenes there are some endearing and humorous bits, especially the fight between the puppies and the macaque for the coconut!

Although it was filmed close to 100 years ago, much of the footage could have been filmed today, as in many cases the houses, dress and people’s behaviour we see in the film can still be observed across much of rural Southeast Asia.

But one thing that is clearly missing is the amount of wildlife. I regularly visit and fly over the very jungle where the film was made, and whilst there are plenty of trees and the people live in much the same way, sadly the animals are no longer there.

Elephant emerges from the jungle. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

A single elephant emerges from the jungle. Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI.

The film culminates in the villagers catching a part of the great herd of elephants, and a few being tamed so that Kru and his fellow villagers can “use the jungle” to once again claim back the jungle, as they build houses.

The footage of the herd of elephants is truly amazing, as (in a time before computer-generated images) we can be sure that the panoramic views of hundreds of elephants are real, but it also brings home the knowledge that they no longer exist. There are probably more elephants seen in a single frame of the film than exist in any of the range countries in Southeast Asia today.

The closing words sum up the thinking at the time: “For first was the jungle, always will be the jungle, from the beginning until the end of time it stretches…the unconquered…the unconquerable.”

If only that were true. I fear now that much of the jungle has been conquered, but – as I said earlier – this film is both inspirational and depressing: depressing because it shows what we once had and have now lost, but it will inspire me to keep working with my colleagues in the hope that one day we might again see the great chang herd.

I would recommend that those interested in Southeast Asian wildlife watch the film, I just hope I haven’t spoilt the plot too much!