It has been way, way too long since I have watched a Ray Harryhausen movie; I mean for this blog, not on my own time. The fact of the matter is, I have simply gone watched all of his movies that I own (I am apparently missing 4-5) and this just happens to be the last one alphabetically. Anyways, I remember seeing this movie years ago when I was a kid and heavily into my dinosaur phase. There is something about this movie that has always held a place in my heart and is probably the only western, in a loose sense, that I have never grown tired of watching. So let’s have a bit of fun with today’s movie, The Valley Of Gwangi.
The plot: A group of gypsies are making their way through the Mexican desert looking for one of their group, Miguel. The eventually find him near dead by a small river and as his brother Carlos approaches him, Miguel manages to say “Gwangi” before dying. Seeing a sack with something crying out, Carlos grabs it but the leader of the gypsies, a blind elderly woman named Tia ,Zorina, says that the bag’s contents must be taken back to the valley, as stealing from Gwangi will bring a curse on them, but Carlos refuses to believe in her superstitions and leaves with the bag. Some time later, Tuck Kirby, a former rodeo stuntman that now works for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, arrives in a Mexican town and hires a young boy named Lope to take him to the arena. As Tuck reaches the arena, he is met by Champ, the manager of the rodeo, who isn’t happy about seeing Tuck back and says he doesn’t want to see T.J. get hurt. Before Tuck can respond, he hears the music for the finale starting up and, recognizing it as T.J.’s music, heads inside the arena doors so he can watch. T.J. is guiding her horse up a diving platform and is preparing to have her horse jump into a pool of water, with Champ lighting the outer base on fire. When she notices Tuck watching, T.J. gets distracted, missing her cue, but quickly recovers and successfully complete the jump. After T.J. and her horse are helped out of the pool, T.J. heads to her dressing room and Tuck follows after her, telling her he has a business proposition for her. Tuck tells T.J. that Buffalo Bill wants to her horse to use in his show and T.J. tells her she isn’t for sell and as Tuck comments on the dwindling audience attending their shows, she gets upset and yells at him to leave. Tuck and Lope leave the arena and encounter Professor Bromley, a paleontologist that is digging in the area. Helping take him back to his campsite, Bromley tells them about his discovery of a bone, with the footprints of an Eohippus, the early ancestor of the modern horse. Tuck talks with Bromley a bit longer and then decides to head back to the arena to try and convince T.J. to sell. At the arena, Carlos approaches T.J., who is excited about their new act, El Diablo, but Carlos wants to talk about the two of them starting a relationship. Tuck shows up and attempts to talk to T.J. again when Lope enters the arena and attempts to imitate the matadors. Lope is knocked down by the bull when it passes him and Tuck races into the arena and grabs Lope then runs for the wall and throws Lope over but is knocked down by the bull before he can climb over it. Carlos enters the arena and distracts the bull long enough for the matadors to enter and lead it away, but he gets upset when he sees T.J. rushing to check on Tuck, who kisses her. Later, T.J. is tending to Tuck’s injuries and asks why he left her and he says he doesn’t know, feeling apologetic about hurting her. T.J. tells him he can have the horse but Tuck gets suspicious and asks her why. T.J. reveals that she is starting a new act and shows him El Diablo, a live Eohippus. T.J. shows Tuck the poster for the act, having El Diablo dance on a platform atop another horse, and Tuck says it is amazing and sure to be solid gold, then realizes what El Diablo really is. Tuck sneaks Bromley into T.J.’s dressing room to show him El Diablo and says they most know where Carlos found him, as there could be more of them. Tuck and Bromley refuse to tell them anything, upset that T.J. told them about El Diablo, but when he mentions the gypsies, Tuck tells Bromley they should ask them. Tuck and Bromley ask Lope to help them find the gypsies camp and when they reach it, they try speaking with Zorina, but she refuses to help them, as she doesn’t want to anger Gwangi. Tuck decides to head back and get some sleep but Bromley approaches Zorina and offers to tell her where El Diablo is. The next day, Tuck is trying to decide if he should tell T.J. about what El Diable really is when he encounters Lope, who tells him he is meeting the Bromley for an expedition. Realizing that Bromley might have arranged to have El Diablo stolen, Tuck heads off to the arena. At the arena, the gypsies break into T.J.’s dressing room and steal El Diablo, knocking out Carlos when he tries to stop them. The gypsies race off back to the forbidden valley just as Tuck arrives and, seeing T.J.’s dressing room door open, he chases after them, followed by Bromley and Lope. T.J. and Champ see Tuck racing off and find Carlos, who tells them that Tuck stole El Diablo and Champ convinces T.J. that Tuck is no good and she orders him to get some of the men together so they can ride after him. The next day, Tuck manages to meet up with Bromley and Lope and asks Bromley where El Diablo is but Bromley says he doesn’t know, as he was merely following the gypsies to the Forbidden Valley, as if there is one Eohippus, there must be others and convinces Tuck to help him, though Tuck says he only wants to get El Diablo back for T.J.. Coming to a series of mountains, Bromley says this most likely is the Forbidden Valley when they hear the horses crying out and head back to find that Lope’s mule, Rosita, missing and blood all around the area, not knowing that it had been carried off by a Pteranodon. They eventually find where the gypsies released El Diablo and discover that T.J. and her group had beaten them there. T.J. lassos Tuck and calls out to Champ and the others when Bromley spots El Diablo next to Tuck’s horse. Everyone attempts to capture El Diablo, who manages to slip through a crevice in the rocks. Champ explores the crevice and discovers it opens into a large valley and they use the horses to pull some of the rocks free from the opening so they can ride inside. Once in the valley, they split up to look for El Diablo, with Tuck, Champ, Rowdy and Bean heading off in one direction, while Carlos, T.J., Bromley, and Lope in another. When a Pteranodon flies down and grabs Lope, Carlos gives chase as is drops to the ground, apparently unable to keep aloft with Lope’s weight, and Carlos manages to break it’s neck, killing it. Meanwhile, Tuck and the others spot an Ornithomimus and they attempt to capture it to bring back but as they chase it, an Allosaurus leaps out from behind some rocks and kills the Ornithomimus. Tuck and the others make a run for it, though Rowdy decides to try and shoot the Allosaurus but his gun is loaded with blanks for their performance and the noise only manages to attract it’s attention and it starts chasing after them. Carlos decides to go looking for the others, and finds them heading back just as the Allosaurus appears and Carlos whispers “Gwangi” when he sees it and turns and follows them. They reach T.J., Lope, and Bromley and tell them they have to leave but Bromley refuses to leave the dead Pteranodon so they are forced to leave him. When Gwangi appears, Bromley quickly goes and hides in a cave but he disturbs some rocks and Gwangi spots him and chases after him. Meanwhile, Tuck and the others are confronted by a Styracosaurus and quickly head in another direction as it makes its way towards where they were coming from. The Styracosaurus ends up confronting Gwangi and the two dinosaurs face off before heading their separate ways, with Gwangi grabbing the dead Pteranodon as it leaves. Tuck and the others find a cave they can stay at and as tensions start to flare, Lope tells them that Bromley and the gypsies had stolen El Diablo, while Carlos lied about who stole it. Tuck and the others work on making a pit trap near the cave opening to try and keep them safe, managing to catch Bromley in it, and they settle down for the night. T.J. approaches Tuck and tells him she wants to sell out, not just the horse but the entire show, and settle down, and Tuck admits that he is scared but he has been looking at a ranch in Wyoming which would be perfect for them to settle down and raise horses or cattle, and the two kiss. The next day, Tuck goes to get some water when he sees Gwangi nearby and Gwangi quickly starts to chase him. Tuck makes it to the cave but is thrown from his horse when it tries to climb up and is forced to hide in a crevice as Gwangi approaches. Champ and the others use some spears to try and fend off Gwangi and when it continues to chase after Tuck, they mount up on horses and chase after him. Carlos manages to get a lasso around it’s mouth but is knocked off his horse and Tuck quickly hops on and continues trying to hold Gwangi at bay. As Champ, T.J., Rowdy, and Bean all join in and use their lassos to try and subdue Gwangi, Carlos heads back to get Tuck’s horse only to encounter the Stracosaurus. Carlos ends up using a torch to light some nearby brush on fire, chasing the Styracosaurus away and straight towards Gwangi. As the two dinosaurs begin fighting, Tuck and the others race past them on their way out of the valley but Gwangi, after killing the Styracosaurus, chases after them and kills Carlos. Tuck and the others make it through the opening and Gwangi attempts to follow them but as it struggles to make it through the opening, it causes a rock slide that knocks it unconscious. Tuck quickly wraps a lasso around it’s mouth and ties it up and Champ is excited and makes plans to bring it back to the arena. Bringing back a cage, they secure Gwangi inside and start making their way to the arena when they are confronted by Zorina and her dwarf companion. Zorina says she foresaw Carlos’ death and says they will die to unless Gwangi is returned to the valley. When they reach the arena, Bromley is upset that T.J. is planning on using Gwangi as part of their show and after he leaves, Tuck questions her plans about a world tour with Gwangi, upset that she decided to ignore their plans of moving to Wyoming and pursue the fame that this world tour would give her. After Tuck leaves, Lope tells T.J. she needs to go after him and T.J. realizes that he is right and quickly rushes out and stops Tuck from leaving, and the two embrace. Meanwhile, Zorina and the dwarf gypsy make their way into the arena, and the dwarf sneaks backstage and works on releasing the pins for the cage so Gwangi can get free but he ends up being snatched up into Gwangi’s jaws. As an elephant in the previous act senses the danger and starts crying out, as the curtain is raised and the crowd gasps in horror as they see Gwangi with the dwarf in it’s mouth. Gwangi breaks free from the cage, crushing Bromley as it does, and begins fighting with the elephant as the crowd quickly flees the arena, trampling Zorina in the process. Tuck, Champ, and Rowdy grab some rifles and attempt to kill Gwangi but the bullets have no effect and Tuck is forced to take shelter inside a large church with T.J., Lope, and most of the other townspeople. Tuck and some men try and brace the door so Gwangi can’t get in but he easily forces the door open and everyone starts leaving out the back as Gwangi makes his way inside. Tuck tells T.J. and Lope to escape while he tries to lock Gwangi inside, then circles back to the front doors to lock them. T.J. and Lope get trapped by Gwangi and Tuck works to distract it, using a flag pole/spear to fend it off. When Tuck is accidentally knocked into the organ, the noise distracts Gwangi and Tuck throws the spear into it’s head, wounding the massive dinosaur. As it roars in pain, Tuck grabs T.J. and Lope and they quickly run for it, with Tuck throwing some hot embers at Gwangi when it tries to follow them. The embers set the pews on fire and Gwangi soon becomes trapped in the fire, knocking over some torches that cause the fire to spread. Tuck, T.J., and Lope make it outside and watch with the rest of the crowd as the church catches fire and starts to collapse, killing Gwangi as it is trapped under some debris and burned to death.
The Valley Of Gwangi met with relatively high praise from modern critics, holding a 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. While there isn’t a critical consensus on the site, many critics praised Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects, feeling it was the best part of the movie. The concept for the movie had actually conceived by Willis O’Brien, of King Kong fame, and was supposed to be a follow up to King Kong but was never made. O’Brien had actually produced a similar movie, The Beast Of Hollow Mountain, a few years earlier however he died before this movie started, and the project passed on to Harryhausen. Unfortunately, the movie was not as successful as Harryhausen’s other ventures, as the market had started shifting away from giant monster movies and Warner Bros. management had undergone changes and they released it with little promotional effort.
I love this movie and I honestly don’t know why it didn’t do better in theaters, as it had most of what you would expect young boys to be drawn to; cowboys and dinosaurs. Anyways, the acting was pretty good, with James Franciscus (Tuck), Laurence Naismith (Bromley) and Freda Jackson (Zorina) doing great jobs in their roles. I also liked Curtis Arden (Lope) and Gila Golan (T.J.), but I wonder what Gila’s voice would have sounded like as they had her voice dubbed for the movie. The story was pretty good, and I liked the idea of Gwangi being captured and placed as part of a circus show and Bromley being upset about it. I might be biased but I honestly feel like Gwangi was some of Harryhausen’s best work, as his movements were incredible when translated onto the screen. Some of the blue screen work could have been a little better but on the whole, this is still a great movie to watch.
Rating: 4 out of 5