Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

The Valley of Gwangi is one of those lost worlds where dinosaurs still roam movies. While these movies tend to follow a fairly standard formula, this one is a little unusual in being a cowboys and dinosaurs movie. It also has stop-motion animation effects by Ray Harryhausen, which is sufficient reason in itself to make it worth seeing.

The movie, made in 1969, is set somewhere around 1900. Tuck Kirby is a somewhat shady cowboy/conman/impresario who turns up in the town where his old girlfriend, the beautiful T. J. Breckenridge, is the star attraction in a Wild West show. Her act is to jump from a high platform into a pool of water surrounded by fire while on  horseback. Not the easiest way to make a living one would have thought. The show is run by her father, and it isn’t doing too well, but T. J. has come up with a new attraction which should turn the show into a veritable goldmine. One of the cowboys has found a living eohippus, the so-called dawn horse, the ancestor of the modern horse. It’s about the size of a large rabbit. She’s going to stage an act in which the miniature horse rides on the back of a full-size horse. 

There’s also a paleontologist working in the area, and when he finds out about the living eohippus the stage is set for a struggle between the scientist wanting to exploit the discovery in the interests of human knowledge and on the other hand T. J. and Tuck wanting to exploit it to make lots of money. Since T. J. doesn’t trust Tuck one little bit there are really three parties all competing for ownership of the little horse. It doesn’t take long for them to figure out that where there one eohippus there must be more, so they set out for the forbidden Valley of Gwangi, despite the dire warnings of catastrophe by the local gypsy wise woman. The valley contains more than just miniature horses - it also boasts living dinosaurs including a Tyrannosaurus rex, which of course would make an even better attraction in the arena than a bunny-sized horse. They set out to trap themselves a dinosaur (in one of the most stunning stop-motion sequences Harryhausen ever staged). 

Of course anyone who’d watched a few science fiction movies could have told them that trying to use a full-sized Tyrannosaurus rex in a circus show was an idea bound to lead to all sorts of destructive mayhem but they didn’t have science fiction movies in 1900 to warn them of such dangers. And naturally the expected mayhem does in fact occur.

The acting is reasonably proficient, with James Franciscus charming and thoroughly untrustworthy but terribly brave as Tick and Gila Golan doing a competent job as T. J. Laurence Naismith contributes a fairly standard but still entertaining performance as the dotty paleontologist. There’s a romantic sub-plot between T. J.  and Tuck, there are problems caused by the superstitious fears of the locals, and overall the far-fetched plot provides a good deal of fun and excitement.

Harryhausen’s creature effects are the real stars, and as always he delivers the goods.

The movie is available on DVD just about everywhere. The region 4 DVD includes a very short and completely worthless documentary which consists of very little besides modern special effects “wizards” gushing about what a genius Harryhausen was. He certainly was a genius, but this brief doco contributes remarkably little in the way of actual information about the man and his methods. 

The movie itself though is a very enjoyable romp which never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. And by sticking to a running time of just over 90 minutes it also (unlike so many modern movies of this type) avoids the danger of wearing out its welcome. Highly recommended.

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