It's a combination that can't help but leave my inner eight-year-old awestruck, especially when realized by the unparalleled imagination and artistry of Ray Harryhausen. In what would be Harryhausen's last time bringing dinosaurs roaring back to life on-screen, The Valley of Gwangi opens not in...well, the valley of Gwangi but in a sleepy, nameless town somewhere south of the border. Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) hasn't returned in the hopes of joining up with his struggling old rodeo or his former flame T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) who remains its star attraction, at least for whatever handful of people can be bothered to buy a ticket. Now on the payroll of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Tuck's moved up in the world, and he's looking to buy T.J.'s "wonder horse" Omar for his new employer. As repulsed as T.J. is by the sight of the man who left her high and dry, it's not all that long before she agrees. No, not because of Tuck's sleazy charms or business acumen but because Omar is yesterday's news. She's about to unveil the attraction destined to turn her rodeo's fortunes around: El Diablo. Nevermind that ominous name; this precious, dancing horse is the size of a puppy.
In the dead of night, Tuck confirms with paleontologist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) what he'd already suspected. This isn't a miniature horse but an Eohippus: a prehistoric creature thought to have been extinct for tens of millions of years. Desperate for funding and aching for recognition, Bromley plays the devil on Tuck's shoulder. If one Eohippus could make T.J.'s rodeo a fortune, how many pesos would a dozen of these adorable animals rake in? They just need to track down where Carlos (Gustavo Rojo) snatched El Diablo from in the first place. When asking politely gets Bromley nowhere, he clues a band of gypsies into the location of El Diablo, dead-set on following them as they return this tiny beast to his true home. When Tuck takes chase, a misunderstanding breaks T.J.'s heart and brands him a horse thief. Half the rodeo is in hot pursuit, and they all cross paths once again on the outskirts of the Forbidden Valley. As it turns out, the valley of Gwangi is home to sights far more astonishing than a pint-sized horse.
The Valley of Gwangi delivers the best of several worlds. With its striking location photography, first-rate costuming, and reasonably adept casting, the first half of the film very credibly establishes itself as a Western. Admittedly, John Wayne never looked on in hushed awe at a stop-motion animated prehistoric horse, and Gene Autry never chatted up a paleontologist at length in the desert. Still, there are cowboys, whooping Indians, rocky vistas, a fiery stagecoach, everything in sight being lassoed, no shortage of full-sized horses, some outstanding toreador footage, the sort of strained romance that's part and parcel of the Westerns I grew up watching, and even a diving horse act. The Valley of Gwangi weaves those elements together with the film that would forever change Ray Harryhausen's life: King Kong. (In fact, the premise for this film originated with Willis O'Brien, Kong's legendary animator as well as Harryhausen's mentor.) Tuck, Professor Bromley, and the Breckenridge rodeo fight for survival in a Lost World against scores of dinosaurs, among them a Styracosaurus, a Pteranodon, and the titular Allosaur. Considering how fame-hungry our heroes are and how skilled they are with a lasso, their ultimate designs for the hellspawned Gwangi come as little surprise. One element that sets The Valley of Gwangi apart from the King Kongs and Gorgos of the world is its Mexican backdrop. This lovely, exotic town makes for a more alluring climax than yet another bustling metropolis would. It's a deft balance of spectacle and intimacy, trading a skyscraper for a cathedral...tanks, aerial fighters, and military might for this handful of rodeo performers we've already come to know so well. The Valley of Gwangi also prefers adventure to the nightmarish horror of its predecessors, although Gwangi himself is a beast of pure malevolence, devoid of the sympathy that Kong inspires.
Nevermind that The Valley of Gwangi is half over before showcasing a proper dinosaur; there are plenty of thrills to be had prior to the unveiling of the Forbidden Valley. The film is, of course, at its most exciting when genres collide. The sight of cowboys lassoing something close enough to a T-Rex in particular is unforgettable. As ever, Harryhausen doesn't just move the creatures he's crafted, frame by frame; he brings them to life so masterfully that entire teams of seasoned visual effects artists with the most bleeding-edge tech available would struggle to match his work here. Even nearly fifty years after The Valley of Gwangi stomped into theaters, there are so many moments where I find myself wondering "how did Harryhausen do that?!" On a very different note, I always love it when a movie successfully shifts my sympathies from one character to another. The person you're most likely to boo and hiss at the outset is well redeemed leading up to the climax, just as the film's most likeable character starts to travel down a troublesome road.
Warner Archive's release of The Valley of Gwangi marks the last of Harryhausen's feature-length films to be issued on Blu-ray. (A case could be made for The Animal World, but I don't consider it a Harryhausen film as such.) Sad though it is to think that there are no more of his movies to look forward to experiencing for the first time in high definition, the thrilling, infectiously fun, and awe-inspiring The Valley of Gwangi is a marvelous farewell, especially on a release as stunning as this. Highly Recommended.
It was only a few weeks ago that I was hemming and hawing over whether or not One Million Years B.C. was the best looking of Ray Harryhausen's films on Blu-ray. Warner Archive has made that an even tougher call with this unbelievably gorgeous presentation of The Valley of Gwangi. The clarity and rich detail showcased throughout most every last frame are nothing short of breathtaking. The nature of Dynamation prevents the live-action footage in those shots from impressing in quite the same way as the accompanying stop-motion animation, but that shouldn't come as any surprise for Harryhausen fanatics. Though there has been some very mild controversy about the color timing of the day-for-night prologue, I can't say that I'm left with any such concerns as someone newly-introduced to The Valley of Gwangi through this Blu-ray release. The vivacity of the film's colors is consistently striking, with their power seemingly not having diminished in the slightest despite its fiftieth anniversary being just off on the horizon. There's not a nick nor a stray fleck of dust to be found, nor is there any intrusive noise reduction. Spilling over onto the disc's second layer, The Valley of Gwangi's AVC encode has all the headroom it needs to stave off any artifacting. In keeping with their dizzyingly high standards of late, I could not be more thrilled with what Warner Archive has delivered here.
The Valley of Gwangi is presented on Blu-ray at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
Presented in 24-bit, two-channel mono, The Valley of Gwangi's lossless audio impresses as well. Dialogue strikes me as sounding a bit lackluster early on, but that ceases to be a concern after a few minutes. The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack doesn't suffer from any clipping, dropouts, or any real sign of strain whatsoever. It's wonderfully free of any pops, clicks, hiss, or any other auditory artifacts. Dialogue, music, and effects are all balanced skillfully, without one element unduly overwhelming another. The rousing score by Jerome Moross (The Big Country) is a particular highlight.
Also along for the ride is a set of English (SDH) subtitles.
The Final Word
The Valley of Gwangi may not be one of the best-remembered films by Ray Harryhausen, but this thrilling genre mash-up captures so much of what I love of his work. With cowboys pitted against dinosaurs in a valley trapped in time, I can't help but watch it with a sort of childlike awe. Clearly the folks at Warner Archive love The Valley of Gwangi as well, lavishing it with one of the most beautiful presentations of Harryhausen's films on Blu-ray yet. Highly Recommended.