Posted by KC on Apr 21, 2017
Cowboys and dinosaurs in a movie together? In The Valley of Gwangi (1969) the combination is as entertaining as it sounds. It is the last dinosaur film of effects designer Ray Harryhausen, and showcases some of his best work, in addition to being a rousing action flick. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.
In turn of the century Mexico, Wild West showrunner T.J. Breckinridge (Gila Golan) is in desperate need of a big attraction to build up ticket sales. Former show stuntman and estranged paramour Tuck (James Franciscus) wants her to settle down with him. Though their relationship is strained, they are still passionate about each other. However, T.J. is determined to make the show a success, and when a tiny horse comes into her possession, her hope for riches is renewed.
Tuck becomes acquainted with Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) a paleontologist, who declares the unusual horse a prehistoric breed. When he learns the animal has come from the mysterious Forbidden Valley, the scientist is eager to go there to look for additional specimens. Tuck envisions finding more fantastic creatures for T.J. so she can make her fortune and retire with him. He tricks the blind gypsy woman Tia Zorina (Freda Jackson) into telling him the location of this mysterious place, ignoring her warning to avoid the area and return the horse or face ill fortune.
When the horse is stolen to be returned to the Forbidden Valley, T.J. thinks Tuck is behind it. She follows him with the men from her show to the Valley, where they find more dangerous creatures than they had bargained for. Though they fight for their lives, their greed never lessens, causing chaos in the Valley and beyond.
Gwangi had originally been conceived by Willis O'Brien, the pioneering effects designer responsible for the creatures in King Kong (1933). He had also been Harryhausan's mentor and thus inherited the project when O'Brien failed to produce it before his death in 1962. Despite a dramatically different setting, the story has a lot of parallels to King Kong, carrying on the theme of greed blinding humans to their own best interests.
The story takes a while to truly get rolling. While appealing actors and a brisk pace keep the action riveting enough in the first half of the film, it becomes truly special when the group first encounters the creatures of the Forbidden Valley.
Harryhausen's prehistoric figures are marvels of detail and emotion. In addition to making the dinosaurs seem real, he manages to telegraph their thoughts, showing them as fully-realized characters in moments of confusion, anger and fear. It is partly this attention to the creatures' inner life that makes his figures so timeless.
In an amusing element of the story, Dr. Bromley is aware of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, while the less educated cowboys are not. Completely baffled by what they are seeing, they think they've come across a plucked ostrich or a lizard who has grown out of control. To be fair, that actually makes a lot more sense than part of the earth existing in a time warp.
It's a fun adventure, made special by its mixing of genres and helped along by a rousing western score.
While there are a few brief moments in the beginning where the film seems fuzzy, overall the image is sharp and clean, with the Technicolor presented to striking effect. Special features on the disc include the featurette Return to the Valley, which includes commentary from Ray Harryhausen.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.