Gwangi! Ready your rifles and lariats because this is one of the best. Harryhausen’s happiest dinos- à go-go epic comes thundering back in HD heralded by Jerome Moross’s impressive music score. Unless you count The Animal World, all of the stop-motion magician’s feature films are now available in quality Blu-rays.
The Valley of Gwangi
Warner Archive Collection
1969 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date March 14, 2017 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson, Laurence Naismith, Freda Jackson, Gustavo Rojo.
Cinematography: Erwin Hillier
Visual Effects by Ray Harryhausen
Art Direction: Gil Parrondo
Film Editor: Henry Richardson
Original Music: Jerome Moross
Written by William E. Bast
Produced by Charles H. Schneer
Directed by Jim O’Connolly
“Ladies and Gentlemen, what you are about to see has never been seen before, I REPEAT, has never been seen before by human eyes!”
In just the last month three of the top stop-motion dinosaur movies, two of them long-awaited Ray Harryhausen classics, have arrived in Blu-ray. Dinosaurs may no longer hold first place in my list of interests, but I can always think back to when I was five years old at Edwards Air Force Base, standing on the sidewalk with my dinosaur toys, telling anybody who walked by all about them.
The Valley of Gwangi came and went from theaters when I was just seventeen, and able to drive onto Norton AFB by myself to see movies. The Air Force had converted a little barracks building into a cinema for young Airmen stuck in San Bernardino with no entertainment except the red light district. Gwangi never came to the civilian theaters downtown, so if I hadn’t caught it on the Base I wouldn’t have seen it at all. The servicemen I saw it with seemed familiar with Harryhausen movies even if they didn’t know him by name. There was a walkout or two in the first half-hour, and some moments of derisive laughter. But the incredible ‘roping’ scene garnered enthusiastic applause.
One blue dinosaur, coming up! In WB’s new scan Gwangi no longer has the blues.
Ray Harryhausen’s labor of love and ode to his mentor Willis O’Brien was an instant hit with young special effects fans and almost nobody else. Before ‘zines like the coveted FXRH catered to the enthusiasts that Warner Bros. had ignored, the show was chalked up as a dismal failure. It’s important to remember that in 1969 Hollywood movie marketers were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. The old roles no longer seemed to apply. Released at almost the same time by the same studio, the classic The Wild Bunch was not considered a success either. Had the industry forgotten how to sell their movies? Gwangi should have had tie-ins with dinosaur toys.
Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer had pioneered a brand of low budget, high quality effects pictures in the Eisenhower years, and had spent the ‘sixties expanding into color and more fantastic worlds. Their films had been audacious (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), epic (Jason and the Argonauts) and elegant (First Men in the Moon), so it was a disappointment to see Gwangi drop the ball so clumsily in both the concept and script departments. Watching Gwangi can be a great experience, if one concentrates on its music and special effects. Those two elements are exhilarating in themselves.
The story is a complete non-starter. Champ Connors’ Wild West show is falling apart on a Mexican tour. Disreputable circus wheeler-dealer Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) arrives to try to shop the show’s star equestrienne T.J. Breckinridge (Gila Golan) to Buffalo Bill’s cowboy circus. But T.J. is keeping a secret from both Tuck and Champ (Richard Carlson): she’s just acquired an amazing miniature horse that her gypsy cowboy friend Carlos (Gustavo Rojo) has stolen from a mysterious place called Forbidden Valley. The paleontologist Bromley (Laurence Naismith) recognizes the little horse as an Eohippus, a supposedly extinct prehistoric animal. But the vindictive fortuneteller Tía Zorina (Freda Jackson) accuses Carlos of violating a feared gypsy taboo called ‘The Law of Gwangi.’ When Tía’s gypsy cohorts try to undo the curse by returning the animal, everyone gives chase. In the remote, inaccessible Forbidden Valley, Bromley’s fossils are alive and kicking!
Many genre pictures in the late ‘sixties had gone annoyingly hip, leaving O’Brien’s straight dinosaur adventure adrift in a sea of irrelevance. Little kids and adult nerds knew what they were getting with Toho’s Destroy All Monsters and The Green Slime, which made money while Gwangi was a pure no-show. The movie with the unpronounceable title is based on a 1942 Willis O’Brien script that didn’t fly and was eventually splintered into several concepts, including perhaps Mighty Joe Young with a familiar Kong-like gorilla substituting for the dinosaur: circus types find an incredible monster, take it back to civilization, it escapes, end title.
Shot in Spain in the familiar Spaghetti Western locations of Almeria, Gwangi never makes up its mind what it is. It’s not really a Western or a Circus picture. It waves a flag of curses and magic but does without a supernatural element. It’s just a plain monster movie in an artificial setting, an impoverished Mexico with pure- blood Spanish horses, European gypsies and a little boy actor as an annoying sidekick. An American Wild West Show goes to Mexico, the land of superior horsemen, trick riders and bullfight picadors? The script forces the actors to embarrass themselves; with their almost uniformly bad dialogue fully looped. Gwangi ended the five-movie career of Gila Golan. Genre stalwart Richard Carlson seems grateful for his ridiculously underwritten role. The impact of the performances in this one is so negligible that the less said the better.
Harryhausen had the stop-motion field almost all to himself, but it wasn’t a niche that Hollywood respected. The success of his previous One Million Years B.C. had been attributed to the appeal of Raquel Welch. Ray’s mistake was not doing something to update the concept that Willis O’Brien had invented simply to combine his twin interests of cowboys and dinosaurs. The Forbidden Valley consists only of some curious Almeria rock formations and a couple of matte paintings. It’s a singularly unconvincing Lost World that couldn’t possibly keep the dinos in or the Mexican population out. Gwangi the Great is a dinosaur, nothing more, and the movie seems to think that general audiences will be charmed by him. Audiences need identification with their monsters, which points to the enormous success of Kong, the steady popularity of Mighty Joe Young, and the indifference shown to most dinos and big bugs on movie screens.
Harryhausen and Schneer occasionally missed the boat when it came to exploiting their own fanciful creations. The Venusian Ymir of 20 Million Miles to Earth could have been a classic monster, but a few gestures toward sensitivity don’t distinguish it much from other anonymous movie beasts. The secret to making Gwangi work was right there in the wasted minutes of plot exposition about curses and Forbidden Valleys: if the gypsies could actually summon the dino with an amulet, or if it were protecting some ancient icon stolen from the valley, etc., there might at least have some germ of a motivation to raise the interest level.
As a special effects fantasy The Valley of Gwangi is superb. By this time in his career Harryhausen could animate dinosaurs in his sleep, and Gwangi has more minutes of animation than his previous two films put together. The Eohippus is extraordinarily successful, much more than Ray’s later attempts to do ordinary animals in movies like Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger. Its cuteness is in such contrast to the ferocious Gwangi that it’s a shame it didn’t have a larger role. Why not have Gwangi protect the tiny horse? Kids would have flipped for that.
The ‘leaping lizard’ allosaurus Gwangi is a marvel of animated physicality. Modern CGI beasties often lack the heft, the solidity and the sense of shifting tonnage that Harryhausen imparts to his 14-inch rubber figurine. Gwangi’s piston legs are always fighting for balance, and his tail swings to & fro to keep him from falling over while attacking his prey. His head-bobbing walk cycle was adapted from watching barnyard poultry; now that dinosaurs have been more closely compared to birds, the idea seems entirely appropriate. Harryhausen doesn’t just make his dinos move, he gives them personality and attitude. Gwangi is a snarling egotist with a real grudge boiling – biting is his favorite activity. Harryhausen gives his star numerous classy touches, as with his second entrance, appearing far away in the haze of a lost canyon. (Big image, top of review.) Gwangi also betrays a hint of puzzled intelligence recoiling at the sound of a cathedral organ — as if momentarily cowed by a monster that can roar louder than he can. And Gwangi shows mealtime discrimination as well: he sniffs at a woman rolling down some church steps, but decides not to snap her up. Perfume?
The powerful effects in Gwangi worked with some audiences; as I say, cheers arose for the big dino set pieces. The amazing roping sequence got applause, as did the snack-time end of Carlos and the escape in the arena. The sheer volume of effects to be produced seems to have hindered Harryhausen, who probably had three assistants to do the work that a modern CGI film would divvy out to five hundred pixel-pushers. By and large, all of what we see on screen in Gwangi is the work of one man alone using only a camera and his own ingenuity. There’s so much happening that some of the effects are lacking — the fake horse into the tank of water, Gwangi’s cage rolling to town, the bad flames in the cathedral for the limp ending. Whether by haste or unavoidable lab problems, the monsters change color repeatedly in original Technicolor prints. Gwangi is supposed to be slate gray, but on screen he shifted from blue to slightly purple without warning.
But for Harryhausen fans the hints of grandeur are there. Richard Carlson’s megaphone announcement at the big unveiling in the bullring is delivered with a grandness that aspires to a King Kong- like effect, and a moment when James Franciscus and a group of anonymous Mexicans try to hold a cathedral door shut against Gwangi’s powerful bulk, is evocative of Kong as well.
Greatly abetting the on-screen fantasy is the music of Jerome Moross, which plays as a equally effective adaptation of the themes of his The Big Country. Musically, the score lends Gwangi its Big Sky Western feeling; the shots of horses galloping across the Almeria plain or charging through town to intercept a raging allosaurus are exciting and dynamic. Everything comes together in the big roping scene, where the cowboys finally demonstrate that they have genuine circus skills. The push-pull, now we got him, now we don’t action with Gwangi struggling against the rodeo horses is just a marvel even now — Harryhausen matches his miniature ropes to the ropes in the live-action background exceedingly well, and it may be his best overall Dynamation illusion ever. The sequence is also well directed, with good cutaways breaking up his standard wide master angle. Scored tightly to the action, the Moross music is capped with a regal flourish when the trick-riders manage to get four ropes on the dinosaur all at once, as he strains and snarls. Gwangi is the most exciting movie dinosaur ever, and that includes his CGI descendants.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Valley of Gwangi is very much the improved HD transfer we wanted to see. The live action footage — all those awful dramatic scenes but also Irwin Hillier’s beautiful landscapes — is indeed much improved. Almost all of the special effects footage looks better as well. I was surprised to see some of the rear-projected backgrounds looking a little washed out in individual shots. Only one looks as if a bad element were used: a wide shot in the Eohippus tent, where Franciscus and Golan are grainy and degraded. Sharpness, detail and contrast are all improved in the effects scenes, with the caveat that a few production flaws are more readily visible — a number of Dynamation shots exhibit a slight flicker. On the other hand, many more shots now look far better. Framed properly, with a wider contrast range, the best material now looks flawless, even the material that uses traveling mattes.
The big question is, what about the star dinosaur’s chameleon-like color changes? Probably without being told, the colorist seems to have toned down some of Gwangi’s rainbow extremes – unlike the older frame grabs here, the brighter-blue Gwangi cuts seem more suitably grayer. What couldn’t be done in Technicolor printing is readily do-able in a color suite, where individual hues can be altered or even replaced. I also noticed some shots with even more delicate shadings on Gwangi’s rubbery leathery hide. And his marvelous entrance, aided by some kind of ‘haze’ effect, is better than ever.
As Harryhausen aficionados readily point out, seeing Ray’s ‘fingerprints’ on shots, even when they reveal some of his tricks, imparts an exciting feeling of involvement with his art… like fans of classic painters that study Rembrandt’s brush strokes. Modern CGI effects can run rings around Gwangi for technical virtuosity, and so what? None of the new movies have produced anything as timeless as the 1933 King Kong. There’s a vast artistic difference between the work of a lone artisan and the efforts of teams of animators using software that grants all wishes – we can perceive the intent and personality of the artist making his own decisions, doing exactly what he wants. I believe that the cult of Harryhausen will keep his films alive — The Valley of Gwangi is far more popular now than it was when new.
Harryhausen’s house in London, 1973; photo © Craig Reardon.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Valley of Gwangi Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good and one of Harryhausen’s very best
Video: Very Good
Supplements: Return to the Valley Harryhausen featurette, trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 6, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson