- Directed by Jim O’Connolly
- September 3, 1969 (United States) / July 19, 1970 (Japan)
A cowboy seeks to capture a dinosaur from a hidden valley for fame and fortune with the help of an old flame.
The Valley of Gwangi is a science-fiction western (sometimes called “Weird West”) from way back in the day. Weird West is a Western subgenre that usually combines the trappings of a Western with things like fantasy, horror, occult, or science fiction.
This one was an unusual combination of cowboys and dinosaurs. I say unusual because near as I can tell the only other film to do such a mashup was a 1956 film called The Beast of Hollow Mountain that employed stop-motion effects, but not by Ray Harryhausen who worked on this film.
James Franciscus (the replacement Chuck Heston in Beneath the Planet of the Apes) stars as Tuck Kirby who is a former stuntman now working for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He comes to the rodeo of former lover T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) to buy her out. He had abruptly left when his fear of commitment got to him. Franciscus has the charming conman type down pat. He has a broad bright smile and smooth demeanor. You know Tuck is a bit of a jerk, but you like him anyway.
T.J. still holds a flame for Tuck but was very hurt when he suddenly left. She is in a rather tepid romance with an individual named Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), an ex-member of a gypsy tribe, who in the story brought her a prehistoric Eohippus (dawn horse) that he acquired from the local group of gypsies in Mexico.
The story itself is pretty good. It is a fun adventure film about a prehistoric valley being found in the 1900s. It works because of that Indiana Jones type feel to it. You can believe that a valley filled with dinosaurs existed in the 1900s in Mexico (or anywhere in the world in the past). I do not think you could get that same suspension of disbelief if the film was set in the present no matter when the film is made.
There is a good chunk of setup establishing relationships and significant characters. We meet T.J.’s employee Champ (Richard Carlson) who is basically her protective father figure. We meet Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) who is working locally and after a chance meeting with Tuck clues Tuck in on how important the dawn horse he sees is. Then there is Lope (Curtis Arden), our prerequisite cute kid, who can get just about anything with a little effort.
After T.J. shows Tuck the miniature horse the story gets rolling. Tuck shows it to Bromley who collaborates with the local gypsies who know where it came from to return it to the valley. Bromley wants to see more in order to prove his theories and figures following them is the best way. What those theories are is never clear in movies like this.
In The Valley of Gwangi the dinosaurs and other creatures were not brought to life with CGI but rather stop motion animation. Even the elephants are stop motion here. A painstaking process, it is a lost art these days. You could do some genuinely amazing stuff with it. A prime example is The Empire Strikes Back and the first moments you see the AT-AT’s approaching the Rebel base. While not that good, the effects here are still good.
There is a very famous dinosaur roping scene in this film involving the titular Gwangi which was a massive technical achievement for its day. In modern times that would all be done in a short period with computers but back then it was a combination of doing it in reality and matching that up with a physically animated puppet. In the real world the actors roped a pole attached to a jeep. When it came to the effects the dinosaur puppet and its puppets had to be done in such a way that it matched the action of the actors. It was slow and tedious, but it was craftsmanship and art.
And that is one reason to see this movie-the special effects. Ray Harryhausen was a master of stop motion animation. No one did it better than him. It has been said he did not invent it, but he did perfect it. If you have seen any of his work, you will agree. This was the last dinosaur themed film that Harryhausen animated.
Gwangi is an allosaur or tyrannosaur (depending on who you ask) and looks amazing. In this film we get pterodactyls and an Ornithomimus (described by one character as looking like an ostrich without its feathers). Interestingly that dinosaur is jumped on and consumed when we first meet Gwangi. That moment is said to be the inspiration for the scene in Jurassic Park when the T-Rex chomps on the Gallimimus.
The only genuinely shocking moment in this film is after they capture Gwangi and they are unveiling him. You hear a noise but you don’t know quite what it is and when they raise the curtain around the cage you see Gwangi chomping away on a person. Cool!
This movie still appeals to the kid in me and even manages to entertain the adult as well. It is a fun Weird Western that is visually and narratively satisfying. It is an adventure yarn meant to be enjoyed and not thought too deeply about. It helps that they cast competent actors and not bargain-basement individuals.
My only significant gripe is that it is clear the dialogue for T.J. as well as Lope was re-recorded. Lope’s dialogue matches up nicely enough with his mouth but you can tell based off of the sound that it was added in. T.J.’s dialogue doesn’t quite match her mouth though. Golan’s Israeli accent was considered too heavy, so her lines were dubbed over. That is something I have never been a fan of. You either cast actors whose voices you are happy with or if you feel the need to dub them find someone who can make the sound match with the lips.
The Valley of Gwangi is a fun adventure yarn filled with fantastic special effects and a great story. It has solid direction and good acting and is definitely a film you should watch.