Chang: A Drama of the Wilderness ★★★★½

Completely disregarding its legitimacy as a documentary (which is pretty much nonexistent; it's a bunch of staged stunts with no safety net), the fact that this footage even exists is miraculous, and that Cooper and Schoedsack -- in their best film, even more astounding and riveting than King Kong and Grass -- are able to fashion these endlessly galvanizing shots of treachery, wildlife, action, destruction (through special effects as well as via setups so mindbogglingly dangerous that Cooper had to cover Schoedsack with a rifle while he directed) into a coherent, compelling story is the kind of audacity that you can't help admiring even as the ethics of the resulting product are unfathomably thorny. The day I saw this I happened to read National Geographic's piece calling themselves out on their colonialist attitudes and language in their pictorials and articles from the first half of the twentieth century, and obviously this film was made in the same condescending spirit (an opening title card brags that the actors have "never seen a motion picture"), yet at the same time the attitude displayed here toward Kru and his family is tellingly different from the way Robert Flaherty views the people he films in Nanook or even Louisiana Story; considering that the directors' relentless death-defying showmanship on this project inspired them to build Kong around a similar character, it's easy enough to sense that the two of them, especially Cooper, really feel a kinship with these people and the characters they construct around them, for their obstinate occupation of a jungle that clearly wishes to spit them out, and for their spirited, relaxed attitude toward living constantly on the precipice of disaster. Cooper may fetishize this lifestyle, but he also genuinely longs for it, even (especially?) as he and Schoedsack pull few punches in depicting their squalor and the tentative nature of their day-to-day existence. That said, who doesn't watch this and wish for an alternate version in which the great herd of elephants emerges victorious a la the T-rex at the end of Jurassic Park, the family -- as much as we sympathize with them -- wounded and scared off like the four canoe buddies in Deliverance. Nevertheless, the aesthetic pleasures and wildlife "performances" found here are pretty much unmatched, even now, and with the good reason that for anyone else to be as bold as this duo is not merely unlikely but deeply inadvisable -- it's like a full-length William Friedkin car chase. In other words, it's one of the most exciting of all silent films -- and after a while you even get used to them ascribing dialogue title cards to the monkey.