Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
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 and 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.
Champ Connors' Wild West show is falling apart on a Mexican tour. Disreputable circus wheeler-dealer Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) is trying to get star equestrienne T.J. Breckinridge (Gila Golan) to quit. But T.J. is keeping a secret from both Tuck and Champ (Richard Carlson): with the help of gypsy cowboy Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), she's entered the Forbidden Valley and stolen a rare prehistoric horse called an Eohippus. When the gypsies steal the animal back to return it to its home everyone follows, including paleontologist Bromley (Laurence Naismith). In the Forbidden Valley, his specialty fossils are alive and kicking!
Making a movie in the late sixties about a dinosaur opens one to a charge of irrelevance. The 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 in Mexico, the land of superior horsemen, trick riders and bullfight picadors? The script forces the actors to embarrass themselves and ended the five-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. Willis O'Brien's original seemed to be trying to repeat the RKO hit, 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 were 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 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 second 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 the work of a lone artisan and the effort of a team of crack animators using software that grants all wishes. I sincerely believe 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, Warners, for a favorite title splendidly presented. 4
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Valley of Gwangi rates:
Supplements: Return to the Valley Harryhausen featurette, trailers
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: October 17, 2003
1. Of course we dinosaur fanatics were charmed; 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 want so badly for the film to have a sense of humor, they have to provide it themselves.
4. A note about the music of Valley of Gwangi from Brad Arrington, April 15, 2009:
Hi Glenn! Just read your (as always) excellent review of Paul Newman's directorial debut Rachel, rachel. As I understand it, Moross (who, unlike childhood buddy Bernard Herrmann, never re-located to Hollywood, always worked out of/from New York) found out in the late 60's that his apartment building was going co-op, or private, or something, and had to have some quick money in order to pay cash for his home (As he didn't want a mortgage. Composing was not steady work for him.) and he asked his agent to get him 3 pictures quickly. The three were: Rachel, rachel, The Valley of Gwangi (both WB-Seven Arts) and Hail, Hero (Cinema Center; and Michael Douglas's first film). I don't know what Moross thought of Rachel, rachel but I do know that he hated both "Gwangi" AND Hail Hero. "A stupid movie" is how he characterized Gwangi and: "They thought they were making an anti-war film, but they were really making a pro-war film, is what he thought of Hail, Hero". In any case, after Hail, Hero he never scored another film again. He got sick of the film industry and he didn't like the kinds of films being made anymore (I wonder what he'd think of the films being made today......) I assume that he was able to get the cash to pay for his apartment/condo...
Neither Ray Harryhausen nor Charles Schneer liked his music for Gwangi (!) At least at the time they didn't. I spoke with Moross's daughter, Susanna Tarjan back in the 90's at a conference of the Society For The Preservation Of Film Music (as it was called then) which was taking place over at the Gene Autry Museum and told her that I wished that her father would have had scored more films than he did, and that Gwangi was one of my personal favorites of his pictures, along with (of course), The Big Country and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn. She looked at me in amazement and said, "But Gwangi was his most self-derivitive!" I replied, "But that's exactly why we LOVED it! Because it sounded like Big Country and Lancer and all those other great Westerns that he did." She still seemed astounded..
In retrospect, I feel that Harryhausen/Schneer AND Moross were wrong. Gwangi was/is not "a stupid movie." It's a wonderful adventure/fantasy which not only holds up today, 40 years after its release, but gets better in light of what passes for adventure/fantasy today. And Moross's creative choice to score Gwangi as a Western and NOT as a sci-fi or fantasy film works all to the film's good. It gives it a separate identity from Ray's other films especially those scored by Herrmann. It's far more memorable than Rozsa's Sinbad or Johnson's First Men In The Moon. Gwangi is also one of the most requested soundtrack releases that any of the CD labels specializing in film music have had. I don't know that Herrmann could have done any better. Different, yes. Better ... I don't know. I doubt it.
I hope that perhaps the music tracks for Rachel, rachel might one day be discovered in the WB vaults (if they still exist, and if that's where they are) and released to CD also. That score is a side of Moross rarely seen as his Western music eclipses his more subdued scores.
In any case, this is just some info you might be interested in. Keep up the great work! Best, Brad
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson