The Valley of Gwangi was chalked up as a dismal failure in 1969. It passed through the few cities where it actually won playdates sharing a double bill with an awful foreign import with Tony Curtis about funny things happening on the way to the Crusades. Reviewers dismissed it as being worse than poor: it was totally irrelevant, unworthy of mention. Ray Harryhausen's labor of love & ode to his mentor Willis O'Brien was an instant hit with the then-isolated special effects fans, and almost nobody else.
Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer had pioneered their own vein of lowbudget, high quality effects pictures in the 50s and had spent the 60s expanding into color and more fantastic worlds. Their films had been audacious (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), epic (Jason and the Argonauts) and cleverly charming (First Men IN the Moon), so it was a disappointment to see Gwangi drop the ball so clumsily in both the concept and script departments. Watching Gwangi can be a great experience, but only if one ignores the story and characters and pays attention only to the music and special effects. Not much of a recommendation, but those two elements are exhilarating in themselves.
Making a movie in the late sixties about a dinosaur could be expected to open one to a charge of irrelevance. Gwangi title is easily mispronounced. It isn't even funny. The story is based on a 1942 Willis O'Brien script that didn't fly and was eventually warped into Mighty Joe Young by substituting a familiar Kong-like gorilla for the dinosaur: circus types find an incredible monster, take it back to civilization, it escapes, end title.
Shot in Spain in the familiar Spaghetti Western locations of Almeria, Gwangi never makes up its mind what it is, and 1969's audience was one that demanded the courtesy of a readily identifiable genre. It's not really a Western, or a Circus picture. It waves a flag of curses and magic but does without a superstitious element. It's just a plain monster movie in an awkward setting, a Mexico with Spanish horses, European gypsies and an annoying little boy actor. An American Wild West Show plays in Mexico, the land of superior horsemen, trick riders and bullfight picadors? The script forces the actors to embarrass themselves and ended the 5-movie career of Gila Golan. Genre stalwart Richard Carlson seems grateful for his minor supporting role. The impact of the performances in this one is so negligible that the less said the better.
The stop-motion genre was stuck in the King Kong rut for decades and even Willis O'Brien seemed to be trying to repeat the RKO hit with his original script, if only because producers couldn't understand anything but past success. The Forbidden Valley consists only of some curious Almeria rock formations and a couple of matte paintings. It's a singularly unconvincing Lost World that couldn't possibly keep the dinos in or the Mexican population out. Gwangi the Great is a dinosaur, nothing more, and the movie seems to think that general audiences will be charmed by him. 1 Audiences need identification with their monsters too, which points to the enormous success of Kong, the steady popularity of Mighty Joe Young, and the indifference shown to most dinos and big bugs on movie screens.
If Harryhausen and Schneer had been ordinary slick moviemakers they wouldn't have made these kinds of pictures. But they often missed the boat when it came to exploiting their own fanciful creations. The Venusian Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth could have been a classic monster, but a few gestures toward sensitivity don't distinguish it much from other anonymous movie beasts. The secret to making Gwangi work was right there in the wasted minutes of plot exposition about curses and Forbidden Valleys: if the gypsies could actually summon the dino with an amulet, or if it was protecting some ancient icon stolen from the valley, etc., there might at least have some germ of a motivation to raise the interest level.
As a special effects fantasy The Valley of Gwangi is superb. By this time in his career, Harryhausen could apparently animate dinosaurs in his sleep, and Gwangi has more minutes of animation than his previous two films put together. The eohippus is extraordinarily successful, much more than Ray's later attempts to do ordinary animals in movies like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Its cuteness is in such contrast to the ferocious Gwangi that it's a shame it didn't have a larger role. 2
Gwangi is animated beautifully. Modern CGI beasties often lack the heft and sense of shifting tonnage that Harryhausen imparts to his 20-inch rubber figurine. Gwangi's piston legs are always fighting for balance, and his tail swings to and fro to keep him from falling over while attacking his prey. His head-bobbing walk cycle was adapted from watching barnyard poultry and seems entirely appropriate. Harryhausen doesn't just make his dinos move, he gives them personality, and an attitude. Gwangi is a snarling egotist with a real grudge boiling - he can't wait to get his teeth into his victims. Harryhausen gives him plenty of classy touches, as with his 2nd entrance, appearing far away in the haze of a lost canyon. There's also the hint of puzzled intelligence when Gwangi recoils at the sound of a cathedral organ - as if momentarily cowed by a monster that can roar louder than he can. And Gwangi shows mealtime discrimination as well: he sniffs at a woman rolling down some church steps, but decides not to snap her up.
The powerful effects in Gwangi worked with the audiences of military airmen I watched it with when new. Few probably knew of Harryhausen but I'm sure they immediately identified what they were seeing with their experiences at early Dynamation pix. There were plenty of groans and derisive laughs at the film's poor dramatics - we have to wait almost to the 45 minute mark to get the story going, a sure sign of failure. But cheers arose for the big dino setpieces. The amazing roping sequence got applause, as did the snacktime end of Carlos and the escape in the arena.
After the roping highlight and the suspense around Gwangi getting loose during a performance, the rest of the show is strictly formula. Big monster busts out at his premiere and gets burned up. The megaphone announcement, "Ladies and Gentlemen, what you are about to see has never been seen before, I repeat, has never been seen before by human eyes!" is delivered with a grandness equal to Kong, but for naught. Most of the peripheral scenes in Gwangi had already been seen many times before. Tuck Kirby and a group of anonymous Mexicans try to hold a cathedral door shut against Gwangi's powerful bulk, a grandiose moment evocative of Kong but without the emotional rush.
A big part of Harryhausen's appeal is his status as an artisan. By and large, all of what we see on screen in Gwangi is the work of one man alone using only a camera and his own ingenuity. There's so much happening in the film, some of the effects are lacking - the fake horse into the tank of water, Gwangi's cage rolling to town, the bad flames in the cathedral for the limp ending. There's also a sense of repetition when Gwangi battles a rather immense and plastic-looking elephant in the arena. Whether by haste or unavoidable lab problems, the monsters change color repeatedly in Gwangi to keep the backgrounds consistent. Even Technicolor can't keep Gwangi from being blue in one shot, and slate gray in the next.
Greatly aiding the on-screen fantasy is Jerome Moross' music, which plays as a superior adaptation of the themes of The Big Country. Musically, the score makes Gwangi a Western through and through; the vistas of horses galloping across the Almeria plains or galloping through town to intercept an Allosaurus have a real charge, and the big roping scene is capped with a regal flourish when the trick-riders manage to get four ropes on the dinosaur all at once. It's their triumph - we've little evidence elsewhere that these are talented horsemen - and the music soars. It's a shame the sound effects don't add up to more. Gwangi gives forth with a nice selection of gurgles and growls, but the screaming of the elephant sounds like someone playing with a fleugel horn. 3
Modern CGI effects can run rings aroung Gwangi for technical virtuosity. Weaknesses and compromises that Harryhausen had to deal with - matte lines, color matching, locked-down angles - are irrelevant trifles in the post-Jurassic Park pictures. But there's a difference between one artisan's work and the effort of a team of crack animators using software that grants all wishes. I sincerely think that the cult of Harryhausen will keep his films alive - The Valley of Gwangi is far more popular now than it was when new.
Warner's new DVD of The Valley of Gwangi is just what the paleontologist ordered. The bright and colorful enhanced picture has excellent framing. It never hides the foot-joins where the lower Dynamation mattes occur but covers content meant to be covered, like the bad join between the horse harness and the wagon when Gwangi is carted through the desert. The transfer holds the entire width of the frame, a first for a video version.
The extras also show uncommon sensitivity - I'll bet there are some effects fans in key slots over at Warner Home Video. A Return to the Valley featurette lets Ray tell in his own words the tale of how Gwangi came to be . He seems more casual than ever before, at ease and happy in retirement, which is a fine state of affairs ... especially after Willis O'Brien's sad troubles.
The menus and packaging art are fine - too bad about the ugly cover illustration, but I understand that it's a style from the European ad campaign. Trailers for the other two new Warners stop-motion monster fests are included. Thanks, Warner, for a favorite title splendidly presented.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Valley of Gwangi rates:
1. Of course we dinosaur fanatics
were; As a four year old, Savant spent a day on the sidewalk proudly showing his plastic dinosaur collection to anybody
who walked down the street.
2. Why couldn't Gwangi's rampage be to retrieve the stolen Eohippus, as in
Mothra? With that simplistic motivation, a Japanese piñata becomes an adorable heroine. I
admit this line of reasoning has nothing to do with Schneer's conception of Gwangi, but dino movies
tend to be dead in any department except the special effects, and the duo's attempt to make a generic dinosaur
picture when they did was just plain obstinancy. If aliens from space can be cute little creatures
that befriend little boys, why can't a dinosaur be the unwitting tool of gypsy cultists? I think Harryhausen
is the dinosaur, defiantly roaring praise for his lost art, and refusing to be anything but exactly what
he wants to be.
3. Audiences always laugh at Gwangi being toppled by a leg-tripping rope - I guess
they wanted so badly for the film to have a sense of humor, they had to provide it themselves.