While this one slipped into obscurity (and the fact Warner Brothers made few copies means this is one hard to find even as an UK import, and it’s oddly pricey, same as for 50’s stinker From Hell It Came), there’s an interesting production history to tell with The Valley Of Gwangi, so gather round the fire, grill some ‘saurus and listen close.
The film was originally conceived by special effect legend Willis O’ Brien (yes “the King Kong guy”), and was basically a mash-up of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, with the added “Kong flavor” of having the creature captured, brought into civilization only to escape, and was known as “ Valley Of The Mists”, where cowboys discovered and captured an Allosaurus – dubbed “Gwangi” – in the Grand Canyon, brought it to a Wild West show, and having it fight with lions (so much for the Wild West theme), until it breaks free, runs amok and is driven off a cliff by a truck.
O’ Brien did pitch it to RKO in 1942, but it didn’t happen due to market research showing less interest in dinosaur films, it never reached the shooting phase (according to Ray Harryhausen), and O’ Brien did end up making Mighty Joe Young, so no complaints there. There was another reported attempt to get the movie off the ground in 1949 by Jesse Lasky. Nothing came out of it.
In November 8, 1962, Willis O’ Brien died, leaving behind an incredible legacy, but also one of his pupils, Ray Harryhausen, another special effects legend in its own right.
Eventually, it would be Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer to pick up the project, after meeting again to see if they could make something out of two old O’ Brien projects, the other being War Eagles, which wasn’t considered viable. As you can guess, “Gwangi” was the one they stuck with, they had the script re-written by William Bast, and eventually Warner Bros financed it, tasking James O’ Connelly (Berserk 1967, The Traitors, The Saint, Mistress Pamela) to direct.
And so in 1969 “The Valley Of Gwangi” came out, making it the second movie in history to feature the mash-up of cowboys and dinosaurs, as the US/Mexican movie, The Beast Of Hollow Montain, came out in 1956, and also involved the oddball subject hodgepotche. “Second” as in there’s at least (there could be more, you never know) a third one, with 2015’s Cowboys VS Dinosaurs.
Indeed, a niche proposal since it came out the same year as Easy Rider (and Midnight Cowboy, to remain in theme), but it didn’t do well and according to the quotes from Swires, Warner Bros really didn’t know what to do with it, so they just dumped it in theathers in a double-bill with… something else. Wikipedia talks of an unspecified biker film, but searching Google Images i found a very old print ad that bills it alongside the forgotten italian crime-comedy film Seven Golden Men.
But there’s also a cinema poster who bills it as second banana to another western, The Good Guys And The Bad Guys… no, never heard of it either.
It has George Kennedy in it, though.
That’s enough history, let’s talk about the actual movie!
Set in Mexico at the end of the 20th Centhury (no, i’m not making that joke, or the other one), The Valley Of Gwangi is not so much about Gwangi as showbiz drama, with a cowgirl barely managing to keep afloat the rodeo show, now confronted by her ex-lover Tuck Kirby, who wants to buy her activity, thanks to the more successful venue of the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
A paleonthologist and then gypsies get involved, talking about how the horse Tuck has brought for the rodeo is actually an extinct prehistoric equine, coming from the nearby Forbidden Valley, it’s cursed, so it should be brought back there. Things don’t go that well, and the parties end up in the aforemention valley, where they find more dinosaurs, and are ultimately chased by a giant Allosaurus, dubbed Gwangi. They manage to rope it down and cage it to parade in a circus-performance-rodeo (again, like King Kong) , but things don’t stay that way for long.
So, how does it fare today?
I do quite like the choice not to set it during the Wild West period itself, but in a modern-but-not quite time period, where the cowboys and Native American are comic book icons more than people, characters for “historical” sanitized fair entertaiment, shows where people play “indians” going after dilingences and such, a type of show that even by then is already passè. It’s a nice framing that makes mixture of cowboys and dinosaurs a bit easier to swallow for the audiences of the time, not because people didn’t like dinosaur movies or westerns, but because audiences’ tastes were changing (as they always do) and the “genre sandwich” in question was odd, it just was.
And looking at it today… yeah, you also have old western movie sensibilities about romance, so the lead character comes off not so much as “heroic” but as an arrogant sexist prick with predatory tendences (even more because it isn’t set in the Frontier days), greedy attitudine, but the script stops at him being downright villanous, he gets back with his ex-girlfriend, all the gargabe is forgiven due to script convenience of a kiss, and a really last minute, really not convincing change of heart.
Nothing really out of the ordinary for this kind of movie and the era, to be perfectly honest, but still, today the main character, the hero, comes off as a smarmy, sleazy dick more than anything else, one you’d want the dinosaur to chomp on, but you know it’s not gonna happen because he’s the lead and this is a movie from 1969. I’m surprised he didn’t outright steal the “prehistoric mini-horse” when he had the chance, guess we put mexican gypsies into the movies for that purpose, despite them being the more level headed (even if stereotyped as heck) persons in the movie.
Most of the characters are kinda dumb and prone to stupid shit, it has to be said, not THAT dumb or that annoying, but mostly dumb, so it’s hard to care about them, not that movie really expect you to. And then there’s also “mexican cheap child labor at your service, mr. White Man with a hat, sir”, the boy Lope.. yeah, that’s about right.
Decent acting, overall.
The movie is about what you expect from the concept, so it’s half western of sorts and half adventure film with dinosaurs and ancient land ripe with extinct species, it starts as “western-like” and then roughly 39 minutes in we go into the dinosaur land, neither part is great (nor that it makes any sense for the two subject matters being strung together to begin with), but the stop-motion effects for the creatures by Harryhausen are still quite fascinanting and good looking even today (as one would expect from him), and it makes for an entertaining movie, a more than decent cinematic curiosity for sure, and one of the more prominent titles of the “Weird West” subgenre.
Definitely the only one sporting a legacy between 2 stop-motion effects legends, a cowboy twisting a pteranodon’s neck like Jason Vorhees AND Allosaurus lazoing.