Valley of Gwangi Review

Fans of Ray Harryhausen’s work tend to rate The Valley Of Gwangi very highly. One suspects that this might have something to do with the fact that it was such a colossal flop back in 1969 or maybe because it’s been relatively little seen in comparison to the great man’s Sinbad movies or Jason And The Argonauts. It’s not a bad film exactly and the Harryhausen effect set-pieces are very entertaining indeed, but it’s sluggishly paced and curiously unengaging. It must have seemed old-fashioned on release and it appears positively antediluvian now, but seeing Harryhausen in full flow is enough to make up for an awful lot of deficiencies.

The films takes an age to get going, which is odd because it doesn’t really have a great deal of plot. Basically, it’s a variation on King Kong, set in Mexico at the turn of the century, which is perhaps unsurprising since the script originated back in 1942 as a project for Willis O’Brien, the man who created Kong. James Franciscus – hopelessly lacking in charisma even by the standards of Harryhausen heroes – plays the manager of a Wild West show who has hit hard times and needs something to pull in the punters. He hits upon the very thing when he discovers a mysterious valley in the middle of Mexico where dinosaurs are still existing. In particular, he lights upon a huge Allosaurus named Gwangi and decides to bring the beast back to civilisation. Needless to say, Gwangi has other ideas and everything goes rather wonderfully wrong.

This is all paced without any apparent notion of tension or suspense, a fairly typical problem with Harryhausen’s films. The monster scenes are marvellous but the narrative between them has all the interest of two drunks trying to negotiate a revolving door. The first half hour of Gwangi is utterly tedious, with a boring romance between Franciscus and the deservedly obscure Gila Golan, playing a Miss Breckenridge but, sadly, not Myra. The pair are given dialogue which screenwriter William Bast presumably considered pithy but which is blunter than a slab of butter. “Being married is like bein’ roped and tied down,” muses Franciscus while Golan is tending to his minor injuries. It’s a good twenty minutes before we see a special effect and it turns out to be a nauseatingly cute mini-horse. “What are you doing here, fifty million years after you should have been extinct” asks Laurence Naismith, a fine British actor slumming as aged comic relief. Whether he’s talking about the horse or the script is a moot point. After this, it’s back to Mexican local colour – all guitars and flamenco dancing – then, finally, the heroes make a journey to the eponymous location. Just in case we didn’t know we were watching a B-Movie, a gypsy turns up to put a curse on all who enter the valley. The point I’m making is that the film takes a third of its length to get moving in any sense – there’s certainly no character development to speak of and this is, after all, meant to be an action-adventure.

Meanwhile, the script keeps producing horrible surprises. A supposedly cute child guide is on hand to offer advice on the order of “When you help someone you love, you help yourself” and the one-eyed gypsy begins wittering portents of doom. Over all this is ladled a score by Jerome Moross, a long way from his glory days of The Big Country. The main problem is the lack of anything resembling suspense, unless you count the feeling of restlessness that one gets from waiting for the dinosaurs to show up. In Harryhausen’s best films, the set-pieces are evenly spaced and there’s not enough time for you to notice that the script is a corpse. The Valley of Gwangi has some fantastic special effects scenes but you can grow old waiting for them to come along.

Luckily, when they do arrive they are simply breathtaking and you can forget the plot and enjoy the work of a man who, when he’s on-form, is unbeatable at his craft. The Pterodactyl is great, somewhat similar to the harpies in Jason And The Argonauts and an alarming shade of mauve, but still very convincing. Excellent blue screen work too. Naturally, the slight blue outline around the effects is a bit jarring for modern viewers but personally I find it rather pleasantly nostalgic. What I didn’t like was seeing a thuggish cowboy beating the shit out of the poor creature in order to capture it. I realise that it’s meant to be a given that we’re on the side of the cowboys but personally I think that the monsters have a hell of a lot more charisma than any of the human characters and I’m always delighted when they start picking off surplus bit-part actors. The highlight, however, is Gwangi, the extraordinary Allosaurus – “There’s a big lizard back there !” as one of the cowboys observes and it is indeed a glorious creation. The scene where is fights a Styracosaurus is riveting and even better is to come. Fans of Harryhausen’s work claim that he never bettered the scene where the cowboys rope and tie the Allosaurus and I have to admit that they have a point. It almost atones by itself for the first part of the film. The later scenes, where Gwangi escapes and goes on a little walkabout, seems a lot more artificial.

Given that I love both Westerns and Monster Movies, this should have been a shoo-in for my affections. But the pacing is so bad and the tension so lacking that it doesn’t really work. The second half has some marvellous stuff though and is enough to make the film worth seeing for anyone who loves Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation.

The Disc

The Valley of Gwangi has been released by Warners along with the earlier Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, also reviewed on this site. Like the latter release, this disc is reasonably good without being distinctive in any department.

The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and has been anamorphically enhanced. The quality of the image varies from pleasing to mediocre. There is often an unsightly haze over the image which affects the clarity of the picture and is distracting. The colours are pretty strong – I assume the dinosaurs are meant to be various shades of purple – and there is a pretty good level of detail. Some artefacting is present throughout but this is not a serious problem and blacks are reasonably deep.

The soundtrack, as you’d expect, is the original mono recording. Nothing wrong with it at all and the various elements of the sound – the effects, dialogue and music – are in a good balance.

The main extra feature is an 8 minute documentary named “Return To The Valley” which contains some generous comments from Harryhausen’s successors about how he perfected stop-motion animation. Looking older than God, Harryhausen tells the story of the making of the film in reasonably engaging fashion. We also get the same four trailers that appear on the disc of Beast. I hope that this means that R2 releases for Clash of the Titans and The Black Scorpion are on the cards.

The film is divided into 31 chapters and there are English subtitles on both the film and the featurette.

I really do wish that The Valley of Gwangi was the classic that its fans would claim it as. But it’s too slow-moving and badly written to be impressive as anything but an excuse for some brilliant, if too infrequent, set-pieces. However, as I said above, these set-pieces are sufficient reason for lovers of screen monsters to give it a look.

5 out of 10
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out of 10

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