The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

When it’s on: Saturday, 21 March (5.40 am)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

When I was a kid, any film featuring the work of Ray Harryhausen was a typically Bank Holiday treat. It didn’t matter that the stop motion animation he perfected to painstaking effect always looked artificial – that was just part of the fun, and besides the creatures he brought to life on the screen were often fantastical to the extent that I, like many others I’m sure, just loved the outburst of imagination they represented. If I have an ultimate favourite among his creations, it’s almost certainly Talos, the giant statue from Jason and the Argonauts that comes to terrifying life, moves with the yell of rusty joints that haven’t needed to be used in untold aeons and threatens the entire ship of heroes. But I was fortunate enough to see the final feature with which he was involved, Clash of the Titans, as it was intended on the big screen, and despite advances in special effects there was nothing more frightening than Perseus trapped in the lair of Medusa, a last hurrah for the brilliance of the man’s art as the breathlessly sublime combination of lighting, sound and animation brought the monster to hideous reality.

Harryhausen was a big fan of dinosaurs, using his technique to put them onto the screen in various movies. Whilst the likes of Jurassic Park pretty much consigned his work into the annals, there’s something undeniably fantastic about his effort to revive these long extinct animals, and besides whilst CGI can serve up photo realistic dinosaurs well enough, it’s a rare film indeed that can inject its monsters with the sense of personality Harryhausen gave to his creations. Compare The Valley of Gwangi with something like the Tyrannosaurs in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. In the latter, there’s a point to which those dinosaurs are there simply because they can be, present for no other reason than to provide a threat to Kong and Naomi Watts. Gwangi, the perpetually irritated lizard that’s forced into the civilised world, with obvious consequences, always has motivation, a reason for being and doing the things it does. No amount of new technology can make that happen; it takes heart.

Released in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi was a flop at a time when Warners felt audiences cared little for this sort of thing and consequently barely promoted it. Taken as a whole, it’s far from the best action-fantasy caper, with its slight plot that is little more than window dressing for the opportunity to bring Westerns and dinosaur flicks on a collision course, the sort of cross-genre nonsense that I can’t imagine fans of either clamouring for. It takes a while for the creatures to appear, but when they do the film suddenly becomes a real thrill ride. The effect of cowboys trying to lasso Gwangi (for the record, it’s sort of a cross between a Jurassic Allosaurus and a Tyrannosaurus Rex from the later Cretaceous period, and I for one love that Harryhausen grab-bagged from both to create Gwangi because, you know what, it’s just fantasy!) looks amazing, human actors and stop motion creature interacting seamlessly, though of course it was a scene that took months to perfect. The actors had to throw their ropes around a pole erected on a jeep, and then Harryhausen overlaid the film with his creature, ensuring the strings around its neck were synchronised with the men’s actions so that the illusion wouldn’t be shattered. Genuinely astonishing work.

Gwangi and his stop motion mates are undoubtedly the stars of the show, which basically means it’s Harryhausen’s film. The director and cast are subservient, and only Jerome Moross’s rabble rousing score, like a rehashing of the brilliant music he produced for The Big Country, really stands out.

Our hero is Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus), a cowboy working for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. I remember Franciscus best from Beneath the Planet of the Apes, where his role was basically to reprise Charlton Heston from the first film, which he did to largely anonymous effect. Here, he has more upon which to chew; his character, Tuck (named after the friar?), is essentially on the make. Despite breaking the heart of T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) previously, he wants to buy out her struggling show, shrugging off her reticence, not to mention her rather obvious personal dislike. T.J. thinks she’s found the answer to all her problems, a miniature horse that appears to be a throwback to the prehistoric Eohippus, an ancestor of the modern horse when they were the size of small dogs. Its origins are identified by Sir Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith), a paleontologist who’s digging away in the nearby desert. A group of gypsies, led by the reliably demented Freda Jackson, kidnap the Eohippus and try to return it from whence it came, via a tiny crack in the side of a mountain. But Tuck and crew discover the crack, realising it leads somehow into a hidden place, the Forbidden Valley, and break through into a land where prehistoric animals still roam.

Naturally, as soon as he comes across Gwangi, the opportunistic Kirby sees money, the prospect of exhibiting a dinosaur as part of his show and rake in the millions. So far, so King Kong, which is what The Valley of Gwangi becomes. Unsurprisingly, the film started life as a project by Willis O’Brien, the predecessor in many ways to Harryhausen, who worked on the stop motion effects for the original King Kong and the 1925 version of The Lost World, and saw Gwangi as an amalgamation of both. For Warner’s, it must have felt like a no-brainer to put the money into production, but Harryhausen’s work took a long time to reach fruition, two years in fact, during which time audience tastes had moved on and a lightweight matinee flick, which this is, held dwindling appeal. It doesn’t help that the hero isn’t especially likeable, just coming across as greedy without appearing to gain much in terms of a conscience as his plans for Gwangi naturally turn to disaster. That said, it’s a film that never outstays its welcome, particularly once the dinosaurs turn up, and there’s a cheerful rush towards the climactic scenes that’s missing from more ponderous epics. The end for Gwangi, staged inside a Gothic church, is very impressively done and shows a nice clash between the raw power of the dinosaur and human structures.

The Valley of Gwangi: ***

A shameless plug now for Multitude of Movies, a new film magazine created and edited by two very good friends of mine. I’ve just bought the first issue, which is reminiscent of the legendary We Belong Dead and features articles on Labyrinth, Beach Party flicks, Christopher Walken, Pale Rider, Disaster Movies from the 1970s, Enter the Dragon, John Saxon, Indiana Jones, Margot Kidder, and so much more! I’ll be contributing to the second issue, but even without that dubious pleasure the first is a delicious treat, beautifully put together and deserving of your support. For further details on the magazine, who’s involved, what they cover and how to buy your copy, please visit their website.

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4 Replies to “The Valley of Gwangi (1969)”

  1. The film’s a real guilty pleasure for me. It’s not, as you say, the best example of Harryhausen’s art but I loved it when I first saw it on TV as a youngster – cowboys and dinosaurs!

    I particularly enjoyed the points you raised about the stop motion technique, and completely agree with your assessment. The painstaking work involved fills me with admiration, but there’s much more to it than that. CGI does of course create a more visually realistic image, but surely that’s not the most important aspect. Guys like Harryhausen never lost sight of the fact their work appealed to the imagination. What’s more important: the more polished illusion of reality provided by CGI, or the raw power of the imagination? For me, the latter always enchants and adds to the escapist feel a good fantasy film should possess.

    And thanks for the link to the new magazine – I’ll have to explore that.

    1. Thanks Colin, great comment, and I should have known you would have loved the crossover genre!

      I don’t want to sound like one of those people who just slags off CGI. Many times I think it’s wonderful, showing us effects (I especially love digital cityscapes, just my thing, I suppose) we would never get to see normally and looking almost as good as if the real thing was right before our eyes, but too often for me it’s used over-liberally, even relies on CGI to fill in the blanks where one’s imagination would do all the work, and I think that’s an awful shame.

      The magazine’s a cracker, a serious looking and dedicated piece of work. I’m looking forward to being involved in future issues.

      1. I look on CGI in much the same way – it does serve a very useful purpose and I certainly wouldn’t knock its use simply for the sake of doing so.

        As for the magazine, I’ve gone ahead and placed an order for the first issue.

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