Rediscovering lost classics Film Forum to present movies produced when adventurer and filmmaker were one

September 26, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

CHANG" leads you deeper and deeper into the jungles of Thailand like an old-fashioned storyteller with plenty of time to build suspense. No flashbacks or foreshadowing, no quick cuts or split screens mar this smoothly flowing tale of a Siamese frontiersman who sets out with his family to forge an independent and dangerous existence with the wild.

Filmed in 1927, the silent film classic is as exciting as it was when New York audiences first saw its elephants stampede through its village. With a cast of 500 native hunters, 400 elephants, tigers, leopards and pythons, "Chang" was one of the first film triumphs of the legendary Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, a pair better known now for a later movie, "King Kong."

Until recently "Chang" was considered "lost." Although there were prints of the film at the Library of Congress and Museum of Modern Art, no one knew who held the legal rights. Restoration experts David Pierce and Dennis Doros, founders of Milestone Film & Video Inc., in New York, eventually located the film's owner -- Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney -- and received his permission to distribute it. Then Milestone commissioned composer Bruce Gaston to write a soundtrack of Thai music, performed on traditional instruments by the Thai music ensemble Fong Naam.

The Baltimore Film Forum will present the newly restored 35mm print of "Chang" at 8 tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art. A free champagne reception will follow. The Film Forum will screen "Tabu," a tragic Polynesian love story which is another "lost" classic restored by Milestone, at 8 p.m. tomorrow. The 1931 silent film was made by F.W. Murnau, director of "Nosferatu," and Robert Flaherty, director of "Nanook of the North."

Doros and his partner and wife, film historian Amy Heller, will speak about the films and the fascinating lives of the men who made them at each presentation. Tickets for each screening are $5 for general admission and $4 for BFF/BMA members. Details: 889-1993.

"Chang" and "Tabu" are part of Milestone's newly released "The Age of Exploration," a series of eight "classic" films made by men and women who risked their lives filming foreign cultures.

They spoke to the romantic view Americans had of exotic lands, to their desire to experience those heroic struggles against nature which had largely faded from their own lives.

"The filmmakers had an ideal of preserving a way of life that was vanishing even as they filmed it," Amy Heller says. "They sought out places that were still untouched by Western culture, but even then things were changing rapidly everywhere they went.

"In addition to being really beautiful, these films have a wonderful way of conveying history. 'Chang' brings you back to the late '20s, to a time that was not just flappers, pole-sitting and bathtub gin, but a time when people were doing all kinds of exciting things."

Much of the thrill of "Chang" comes from the sheer daring of filmmakers who strove to generate seat-gripping excitement without special effects or telephoto lenses. Cooper and Schoedsack were the kind of fellows who actually captured the wild animals they filmed.

Among many anecdotes from the film: Cameraman Ernest Schoedsack was semi-delirious from malarial fever when he filmed the man-eating tiger who almost leapt high enough in the tree to seize him. Director Merian Cooper was fed a chicken stew laced with tiny bamboo barbs after he insulted a local chieftan; a missionary doctor managed to save his life. After surviving malaria, Schoedsack almost died when stampeding elephants ran over his camera bunker. Seven of the villagers died from an outbreak of cholera.

It was a film that lived up to the motto of Cooper-Schoedsack Productions: "The Three Ds: Keep it Distant, Difficult and Dangerous."

"Chang" was a box office success, influencing such later films as Tarzan the Apeman." "King Kong" includes many references to "Chang" and the experience may have prompted Cooper's decision to model the filmmaker/explorer of "Kong" after himself.

He stands out as quite an Indiana Jones, according to Heller's research. Kicked out of the Naval Academy, Cooper worked first as a Merchant Marine and journalist. A fighter pilot during the last days of World War I, he helped found the Koscuiko division of the Polish air force. He fought with the Poles against the Red Army, was shot down and sent to a Siberian prison camp. He escaped and traveled almost a month on foot to Latvia where he was jailed as a suspected Communist. Eventually he was rescued by a U.S. relief mission.

He first worked with Schoedsack on Capt. Edward Salisbury's 1922 expedition around the world. Their first film, "Grass," was about migration of the Bakhtiari tribe of Persia.

"These filmmakers were Renaissance men at a time when there were Renaissance men," says Doros. "There were many amazing explorers then. They weren't interested in money -- Murnau and Flaherty spent all their money making "Tabu" -- they wanted to go out and explore.

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