The Valley of Gwangi (1969) is a fantastically entertaining B fantasy sci-fi dinosaur western taking place at the turn of the century, concerning the discovery of prehistoric creatures, and featuring some of Ray Harryhausen’s best creations.
Handsome showbiz promoter Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) goes to Mexico to try and talk his former partner and girlffriend, T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) into selling her Wild West touring show and settle down with him on a ranch. She’s performing death-defying horseback high-dives in the show, but then one of her company brings her quite the game-changing find from nearby Forbidden Valley. It’s an adorable miniature horse no bigger than a football, that T.J. names “El Diablo” and plans to feature in her show (little horse riding on normal-sized horseback!). Tuck shows the animal to paleontologist Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith), and both men go giddy over the possibilities. The professor lays eyes on the Eohippus he thought was extinct, foresees a pile of science awards and a knighthood, and practices saying “Sir Horace” until his eyes glaze over. Tuck imagines the astronomical amounts of money he and T,J. could get for the critter in a bidding war between Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey, et al. Meanwhile, a blind Gypsy oracle (Freda Jackson) continues to warn all who will listen that there will be curses and hell to pay if teeny horse isn’t returned to the Forbidden Valley. For all these reasons–profit, research, superstition, self-interest–the players end up riding into that valley, and it’s there that the jaw-dropping Harryhausen stop-motion riot really begins.
Now, I’m no paleontologist, so I just guessed that where there’s a 50 million year old horse, odds are good there might be other similarly old and rare creatures. After taking a winding route into a deep and pretty valley and through some caves and great-looking rock arches (this was filmed in Spain), the group are attacked by a pterodactyl. The creature picks up the kid that’s been guiding the team, Lope (Curtis Arden), carries him into the next clearing and nearly beats him to death with its wings. The gang then encounter more, larger, prehistoric things, and capture a huge and fiesty Allosaurus they come to call Gwangi the Great, named after the valley. As in King Kong, their plan to make an attraction of the captive creature backfires disastrously and it all ends in mass panic, an exciting monster chase through town and a gorgeous cathedral going down in flames around Gwangi (hell to pay, remember).
This script was originally written by Harryhausen’s mentor, King Kong’s effects wizard Willis O’Brien, and the idea also inspired The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956). This was my first time seeing this movie and, even though I know and love most of Harryhausen’s work, I was still astonished by these flawless effects. The bit where they wrestle the pterodactyl and try to save Lope, or where the cowboys are lassoing Gwangi, all looked so great and seamless. They’re not just convincing and fun moments but more importantly, marvelous ones, that have you in awe of the difficulty, time (two years), hard work and love that went into making these things come alive with so much personality. The only thing I could possibly quibble about was the purplish colour of the dinosaurs, but like I said, I’m no paleontologist.
With the spectacle of the creatures, it’s easy to forget the actors and they deserve mention. They’re all fun, they’re playing it just right, there’s a thin but good enough plot, there’s a jealous lead in T.J.’s show, Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), the kid Lope is amusingly streetwise and entrepreneurial and he cries when Gwangi dies, and I didn’t even mention that Richard Carlson is in this too. I really like James Franciscus, he had a Heston-Lancaster look and presence and made a flinty and likable hero. Here he flashes that grin as he tries to win back his T.J., has a lot of good action scenes dodging or fighting Gwangi, and is charming as always, but it’s hard to compete with those amazing creatures.
The Valley of Gwangi is wonderful escapist fun and this post is proud to be a tiny horsie sized part of The Blogathon from Another World hosted by Chris at Blog of the Darned. Click here to see all the other posts.