[1927/28] Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness

The first Oscars set no precedent.

The “ceremony” was a cloistered affair, offering little fanfare and no vaunted halls. It wasn’t even called the “Oscars” until sometime later with competing apocrypha clouding the chaotic 30s. The categories resembled their modern counterparts, but also didn’t. There was a category for “Best Title Cards” sometimes referring to (no specific film); two distinct directing awards – one for comedy and one for drama; two actors nominated for their whole body of work from the year, and three actresses for the same; there was a category for best art direction. Surprisingly this category lasted until 2010, when it was renamed “Production Design.” The first Academy Awards awarded two films, co-equal, “Best Picture” — one called “Outstanding Picture” and the other called “Most Unique and Artistic Picture.” Retroactively, the Academy decided to consolidate the top honor into a single choice, thus orphaning three films that aren’t even counted in the total, official count.

One of these films is Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness, and it isn’t like its contemporaries, or really any movie nominated for Best Picture since. It is ostensibly a documentary with a loose narrative attached. As is the case, no “cast” exists. It does track a man, his family, some elders, and a host of animals that are competing for a limited space in the jungles of Siam in the mid-1920s, pre-modern, pre-almost-everything. The film is really about the absolution and decimation of a natural space in exchange for Man’s progress. Curiously, the filmmakers treat the experience agnostically, choosing to treat their audiences to the sighting of animals they most likely hadn’t seen before — tigers, monkeys, elephants (“Chang”) — slaughter and trappings included. As it stands, Chang is an unintentional relic of its time and environment.

No “documentary” feature has since won for Best Picture, with a special category having been created in 1942 to handle nonfiction. Chang is short, difficult to find, and with the benefit of access to everything, unnecessary to seek out unless the viewer is looking specifically for a piece of history. No way would this production be okay, too, in the era of conservation. On the surface, directors sometimes cannot, but certainly should not, kill animals. Just below the surface, the unintended effects of a man’s making a home for himself destroys the lives of the other animals. We happen to have opposable thumbs and an overdeveloped prefrontal cortex; surprising we can’t use this brain to limit our consumption. Chang doesn’t get it; it wasn’t meant to. But we can.

Curiously, the production of Chang had a lasting effect on directors/producers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, later known for King Kong, were said to have drawn inspiration from Chang after having seen the wildlife run wicked over the man’s village. Despite its popularity, King Kong was not nominated for Best Picture when it presented itself for judgement. Outside of this fact, there’s no comparison to be made here to the other five films up for Best Picture in 1927/28: Chang stands alone among its peers as a frightful, formative film, perhaps rightfully thrust to the annals of film buffs.

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