In "Avatar" James Cameron bet -- correctly -- that if he made the human characters hateful enough audiences would get off on the rampages of dinosaur-like creatures and not suffer even the guilty conscience that sinks in at any old Godzilla movie.
But for genuine visceral excitement complete with recognizable human beings try "Chang" (left), a silent masterpiece from the makers of the old "King Kong," Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack. In fact, see it twice: get it now on the Milestone DVD and then watch it at the Maryland Film Festival next month, backed by the live sounds of the thrilling Alloy Orchestra.
For this 1927 Siamese rain-forest extravaganza, the filmmakers soaked up jungle lore and figured out how to trap wild animals; a couple of their ideas even caught on with the natives.
They assembled a man, a woman, two children and a gibbon ape named Bimbo to play a family trying to withstand tigers and elephants while carving a homestead out of the overgrowth. Cooper and Schoedsack weren't anthropologists or ethnographers. They were honest-to-God moviemakers, and they suffused their work with the tingle of entering an alien environment and maneuvering in it on instinct, hunch, and a smattering of common sense.
"Chang" (the title means elephant) is filled with frissons that make audiences jump in their seats and other filmmakers wonder, "How did they get that shot?" There are terrifying scenes of a marauding tiger, a mama elephant rescuing her baby, an elephant stampede, and the rounding up of a mammoth herd into a kraal. Bimbo provides the emotional focus. He's always in the thick of the action. He event tries to bomb the elephants with coconuts. The concepts of taming the wilderness and domesticating jungle beasts are (these days) considered politically incorrect. But they're artistically correct in "Chang." There's a rough-and-ready freedom to the imagery.
(photo courtesy of Milestone)