The blending of two disparate but popular film genres –
in this case, the horror/sci-fi film with the saddle opera - was hardly new
when The Valley of Gwangi hit the big
screen in 1969. This film’s most identifiable
predecessor, one pitting cowboys against a prehistoric monster, might be The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), but
truth be told Hollywood had been combining these two genres almost from the very
beginning. In the 1930s and ‘40s,
audiences thrilled to the ghostly monochrome exploits of such western serial heroes
as Ken Maynard, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Buster Crabbe with such films as Tombstone Canyon (1932), The Vanishing Riders (1935), and Wild Horse Phantom (1944). Universal’s Curse of the Undead (1959) was a later but no less interesting experiment
for Hollywood’s preeminent fright factory. The studio removed the vampire from the usual atmospheric Gothic
trappings of old Europe and dropped him onto the sagebrush plain.
On the far loopier end of the spectrum, the notorious director
William “One Shot” Beaudine, provided us with the ultimate in old west
weirdness with his legendary twin-bill of 1966, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula and Jesse
James vs. Frankenstein’s Daughter. 1973
brought to movie houses two of the more memorable big-screen blends: the
sci-fi/western Westworld and Clint
Eastwood’s prairie ghost saga High Plains
Drifter. This combining of westerns
and fantasy films continues, more or less, to this very day… as anyone who
caught the lavish CGI-fest Cowboys and
Aliens (2011) can attest.
Director James O’ Connolly’s The Valley of Gwangi is set mysteriously at the turn of the century
somewhere “South of the Rio Grande.” (Principal photography on The Valley of Gwangi was actually shot on
various locations throughout the deserts of Spain). The locals are enjoying a parade through a
dusty town. The parade has been staged
to promote K.J. Breckenridge’s wild and wooly Cowboys vs. Indians Wild West
Show. K.J.’s rodeo, not-politically
correct by today’s standards, is set to be held at an equally non-PC
bull-fighting arena. Contemporary
political activists needn’t grab their picket signs. The stadium is hardly filled to capacity, and
we soon learn Breckenridge’s rodeo is in dire financial straits. The show simply hasn’t been pulling in the
crowds of late, and even main attraction “Omar, the Wonder Horse,” whose equally
non-PC stage-jump from an elevated platform into a murky pool of water isn’t
enough to save this sad affair.
Suggesting the writing is on the wall, the sultry Breckenridge
(Gila Golan) is approached by smooth talking Tuck (James Franciscus), a
self-absorbed rodeo cowboy and former lover of T.J. Tuck now makes his living by booking acts for
a big entertainment consortium back east. He wants K.J. to sell off the rights to her semi-popular diving horse
act, but his ex-paramour is still bitter over their estrangement and not
interested in selling. Besides she
believes newly found prosperity is just around the corner. She agrees to show him the still-secret
attraction that she’s certain will reverse her rodeo’s downward spiral.
The budding impresario is stunned when she unveils “El
Diablo” a miniature horse that Tuck recognizes is no horse at all. It’s actually an Eohippus, a fifty-million year old ancestor of the equine. This was not a lucky guess, nor is the
startled ex-cowboy an expert on prehistoric beasts. Ten minutes earlier in the film Tuck had
gleaned this morsel of knowledge after stumbling upon a scotch drinking
Paleontologist camped in the scrub brush desert in search of fossils. Tuck responsibly alerts the amazed scientist (Laurence
Naismith) about the Eohippus (“The
greatest scientific discovery of the age!”) and together they learn the Eohippus was captured on the frontier outskirts
of the grimly named “Forbidden Valley.”
Unfortunately for all concerned, the aforementioned valley – and all of its inhabitants – is zealously guarded by a native tribe and the curse-spewing, old hag witch, Tia Zorina (Freda Jackson). They tribe “kidnaps” and covertly returns the Eohippus to its rightful habitat of the Forbidden Valley which causes Breckenridge’s team of rodeo cowboys, Tuck and Professor Bromley to follow in hot pursuit. The enter the valley through a system of caves and are promptly threatened by a Pterodactyl, a Styracosaurus, and most formidably by Gwangi, an ill-tempered, no nonsense Allosauraus who gladly feasts on the flesh of anything - or anybody - crossing his path. The cowboys improbably manage to capture Gwangi with the aim of making him the main attraction of their rodeo spectacle. But much in the scenario of forebears King Kong, Mighty Joe Young, and Gorgo, this decision proves to be ill- considered and dangerous. Gwangi escapes even before his first unveiling, and his rampage – naturally - sets off all sorts of destruction and mayhem.
Valley of the Gwangi will be of most interest to those who cherish the awe-inspiring Dynamation effects of the late, great Ray Harryhausen. When the film was released in 1969, bloodthirsty tykes lucky enough to catch this on the big screen must have left the theater enthralled. Though the film was given a “G” for a General Audience rating in ‘69, there’s plenty of non-kid friendly carnage sprinkled throughout. It’s a good thing too as the film dawdles for the first hour or so while we anxiously await the obvious payoff. It’s really only when K.J. and her team of money- grubbing cowboys, scientists and marauders wander ignorantly into the Forbidden Valley that the film begins to clip by at the pace of a good roller coaster.
William E. Bast’s screenplay is partly to blame for the pedestrian first hour. His script is peculiarly peopled with mostly unlikable, self-absorbed and selfish characters. They’re all trying to make a quick buck off the valley’s plundered prehistoric anomalies, and nearly all the film’s main characters are off-putting to one degree or another. We really don’t care if any or all fall prey to Gwangi or his friends… or at least I didn’t. Though there’s a contrived romantic sub plot involving feuding ex-lovers Tuck and K.J., there’s little demonstrative physical or emotional chemistry between the two. It might be best for all involved that the two actually don’t reconcile. If nothing else, Gila Golan’s K.J., with her pigtails, checkered shirt, and flat-brim cowboy hat, was almost certainly the primary archetype for “Jessie” of Disney’s Toy Story fame.
Special features on this Warner Archive edition of The Valley of Gwangi includes “Return to the Valley,” a worthwhile supplement ported over from the 2003 Warner Home Video release on DVD. This compact documentary gives us a few insider details on the making of the film but mostly serves as a vehicle in which a generation of animators and special effects technicians can pay deserved tribute to Gwangi’s Associate Producer and “Creator of Visual Effects,” Ray Harryhausen. The admiration these artists share for Harryhausen’s ground breaking genius is genuine. These were all young men who came to their vocation through Harryhausen’s work. They had all been weaned as children and young adults in the 1950s through 1970s on such special effects extravaganzas as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Jason and the Argonauts, and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad. If you grew up with The Valley of Gwangi as a child and are the nostalgic type - or if you’re a stone-cold fan of Harryhausen’s stop-motion genius - you will surely want this.