The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

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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.

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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.

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15 thoughts on “The Valley of Gwangi (1969)”

  1. It’s a fun movie, isn’t it, Kristina? And, as you say, the special effects are pretty impressive for 1969. I saw this on General Release as part of a double bill in the UK. I would need John Knight or maybe especially, David Rayner to tell me what the other film I would have seen with it was!
    As I read your fine review I started thinking how much the film reminded me of the 1956 Guy Madison ‘BEAST OF HOLLOW MOUNTAIN’ and then Hey Presto! you mention the connection. Why would I ever doubt you??!!

    1. This was SO much fun, glad I finally watched it! I’ve always been bowled over by Harryhausen work and this was stellar. I love these effects, they have a “weight” and presence to them that you rarely feel with CGI. The interaction between the pterodactyl and the people was an astonishment, I reviewed a few times and couldn’t see the “seams.” I haven’t seen the Beast of Hollow Mountain, which I believe is the first dinosaur western..? Learning all the time! Thanks as always for reading!

  2. A real fun movie and first rate effects from the master. I love that one sheet but alas, not in my collection. James Franciscus was always someone I took note of because of his appearance in the first Apes sequel as Brent the astronaut following Heston’s trail.

    1. He’s like Heston’s younger, romantic lead, brother. Really like him, I recall when I was young my parents watching a TV movie (miniseries maybe?) where he played JFK, Jaclyn Smith was Jackie? But yes this was a blast, I was glued to the dinos and little horsie.

  3. It is indeed a fun movie and definitely some of Harryhausen’s best work. It takes a while to wrap your head around it being a Western that has what, dinosaurs. Ah, but once you get there it’s such a great ride. I love it. When you suggested it, I had to try to dredge up what movie it was. Then I saw the purple dinosaur and went, oh yeah, got it now.

    Love the post. Love the film. Thanks for jumping in.

    Chris

    1. FUN is the key word, in all these comments and my reaction to the film. Anything that makes you feel like a kid again is just plain movie magic. I love the mix the western with sci fi or horror and wish there were more of them, it works as well as Victorian or mythological settings, etc. Thanks a bunch for this excuse to watch the movie and for hosting, look forward to making the rounds and seeing everyone’s posts!

  4. Excellent review! This one has been a favorite for ages and I’m glad to see it getting a new fan. You could say now that those “purplish” dinos, particularly that T-Rex were inspirations for Barney (heh), but that could get a guy beat up in some circles. I guess if it’s ever restored, some digital color work on those creatures would be a nice touch. Then again, some of Harryhausen’s other classic creatures tend to run a bit too purplish/bluish (such as the harpies from Jason & The Argonauts).

    1. Great time with this movie, Harryhausen stuff has that charm and magic to it, so much love and talent went into those creations and it shows. Now I have the image of Barney chuckling and bouncing into Forbidden Valley to save his little friend Pokey. Cross brand fun!

  5. How can you not love such a super-awesome mash up?! I am a huge Harryhausen fan, thanks for an enjoyable read, I am glad you’ve joined #teamGwangi!

  6. I first saw The Valley of Gwangi as a kid and I loved it. It still holds up very well! I honestly think Ray Harryhausen’s effects are much better than today’s CGI!

    1. I do too, not only does it feel like it actually interacts with humans, where cgi can be airy or clearly not there, but also it looks like it was made by humans. These things have personality and charm. Thanks.

  7. Great. Now I can see some direct to video kid’s flick called “The Valley of Barney” coming out sooner then expected. Jurassic bark (woof!) that it’s not good, but it would be funny as hell to see a clay Barney and pals doing their stuff (just turn the ear-drilling songs down when they start playing).

  8. I love this movie! Just seeing the title in my newsfeed got the theme music running through my head. “Evil? Balderdash my good woman. He’s no more evil than an alligator!”

    1. Ha! I loved it too. Such great work, movie magic and a fun discovery. Love how he gets his own credit at the end …”and Gwangi.”

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