The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

22 09 2009
Valley of Gwangi poster

Valley of Gwangi poster

Gypsies. Self-appointed guardians of mystical mumbo-jumbo, heather and big-hooped earrings. In fact there’s a scene where the main characters of Gwangi attend a gypsy shindig that looks like it’s straight out of From Russia with Love, though without the girl-on-girl action. The gypsies also, as it turns out, guard a valley where the cataclysmic events of sixty-five million years ago never happened and evolution slowed-down, sped-up and went down a dead-end. The plot is more or less King Kong and The Lost World all over again. Man encounters dinosaurs, man captures dinosaur, dino runs amok in civilisation.

Gwangi looks suitably different though, set in turn-of-the-century Mexico with cowboys, deserts – the type of location that also played host to The Wild Bunch in 1969. James Franciscus plays Tuck Kirby, a former stuntman turned representative for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. He wants to buy a high-diving horse from his former love TJ, a heavily dubbed Gila Golan. TJ has something better in mind though brought to her by suitor Carlos. A very tiny horse called an Eohippus…

It’s the first scene when Tuck and TJ watch the Eohippus that provides the initial touch of Harryhausen magic. The Eohippus is made real by a mixture of the master’s animation and the wide-eyed disbelief of the main characters. Another scene in which the Eohippus and a real horse touch noses could be straight out of Disney.

But the main attraction is Gwangi. At times blue, at times green, but never a Barney purple, Gwangi is a magnificent beast, full of personality and rendered brilliantly on the screen. His arrival into the movie is breathtaking, snapping up a smaller dinosaur in a matter of seconds (the shot was stolen wholesale for the T-Rex attacking the Gallimimus in Jurassic Park). The outstanding moment is the rodeo riders attempting to rope the dinosaur down. That ILM studied the sequence for their work on Jurassic Park is testament to how incredible Harryhausen’s work is. The ropes all line up around Gwangi’s neck, every time a horse reacts, Gwangi has caused it. It’s a masterpiece of model work and is rightly celebrated.

For a ‘U’ rated film, the movie does have its own unique moment of horror as the band plays and a the curtain rises on the captured beast only to show that Gwangi has grabbed and is eating the gypsy dwarf that was trying to set him free. The band plays on as the crowd starts running for their lives. The finale is played out in a cathedral, which traps the dinosaur and then caves in on him. It’s an intriguing moment of evolution meeting religion and them being destroyed together, only man survives. Overall it’s an astounding end to the movie which starts with a tiny horse.

One more thing… Gwangi was crushed when the entrance to the valley fell on him, but the rodeo riders dragged Gwangi and pulled him out, presumably leaving the pathway back to the valley wide open to get into… Or for something to get out…

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