Review: The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Stark says: GWAAAAAANGI!

Long, long before Cowboys & Aliens was even a glint in anyone’s eye, there was The Valley of Gwangi. I’ve eyed the Western and its many genre hats before, but it seems that the “Monster Western” slipped through the net. Is it a sub-genre in its own right? The snarling, hybrid beast-child of the Horror and Sci Fi Western?

As a film, Gwangi is an odd creature, with a storyline that will ring bells for anyone who knows about King Kong: an ailing Wild West show finds a “forbidden valley” in Mexico, discovers a dinosaur there, drags it back to civilisation to be a star attraction… with chaotic consequences.

Made in 1969 it looks (and feels) a lot older than that. Probably because the script was developed in 1942 by Willis O’Brien – Ray Harryhausen’s mentor – at a time when the traditional adventure Western and the monster movie were at the height of their popularity.

For whatever reason, the film was canned and left to gather dust for nearly thirty years. When it re-emerged, it was into a very different world indeed. The revisionist Western was at its height and the monster movies of the ‘40s and ‘50s were, arguably, in decline. There’s one thing that saves Gwangi from being out-dated tack. And that’s…

THE GOOD

… Harryhausen. Without him, The Valley of Gwangi wouldn’t exist. Neither would it be any good. From the beginning, this was a personal project for the animator, bringing to life a film that his mentor saw as a companion piece to King Kong (1933). And that personal connection shows. With stop-motion special effects that took nearly a year to complete, this is some of Harryhausen’s finest work. The subtlety of characterisation and movement is remarkable. Forget the actors, the “monsters” are the stars of this film.

Gwangi, as a character, holds our attention from the minute he appears on screen. A reviewer once commented that: “it says something about the production and about Harryhausen’s artistry when we realize that Gwangi, the snarling dinosaur created from a tabletop model, is the most realistically alive character on the screen”. Damn straight, and the same goes for the creature that sparks off the foray into the secret valley, an Eohippus (tiny horse). It’s so goddam cute. And I don’t even do cute.  

In this “cowboys versus dinosaurs” set-up, our loyalties are undeniably with the dinosaur. The cowboys themselves – all the characters actually, with the exception of Tuck’s young sidekick Lope – are pretty objectionable, doubly so for a contemporary audience. Gwangi, on the other hand, is just so full of life. His movements are fluid and intricate and it’s easy to forget that he’s a creation of a painstaking frame-by-frame process. Yes, he’s a roaring, snarling, stampeding dinosaur, but at one point he also appears in the background of a shot, just casually scratching his nose.

Cue some brilliant Harryhausen set pieces: Gwangi versus Elephant! Gwangi versus Styracosaurus! Gwangi rampages around a cathedral! The scene where the cowboys lasso Gwangi’s neck multiple times deserves special mention too; it was a lengthy and tricky process for Harryhausen, and meant exactly matching animated ropes to real ones. 

All in all, Gwangi is the hero, the victim and the antagonist of the film. Not only do we sympathise with him, we come away with the impression that although nature might be savage, we humans are the ones who are barbarous.

And so…

Gwangi in the Valley of Gwangi

THE BAD

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a cowboy-dinosaur rampage, this film doesn’t exactly try to fill out its characters. They’re all more or less 2D. Tuck is slimy and conniving, T.J. (his love interest) is ultimately weak-willed, and the fossil-hunting Professor is driven by greed. If they were cartoon characters, they’d all have dollar signs for eyes.

After Gwangi’s capture, the Professor states that the dinosaur is the “property of humanity”. I guess it could be argued that the characters’ one-dimensional motives are there to make it plain that “belonging to humanity,” means commodification, as a circus attraction and a scientific artefact.

Tuck: T.J. doesn’t know what she’s got.
Professor Bromley: Sir Horace Bromley.
Tuck: It’ll look great in lights.
Professor Bromley: Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Bromley.
Tuck: Buffalo Bill, Barnum and Bailey. Or the Ringling Brothers.
Professor Bromley: Yes. Yes. We’ll play one off against the other.
Tuck: Sell to the highest bidder. They’ll beg.
Professor Bromley: Possibly Lord…
Tuck: We’d make a killing.
Professor Bromley:  …Bromley.

It’s doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see Gwangi’s fate as synonymous with the fate of many Native Americans; as captive curiosities in the early days of Westward expansion, and later playing burlesque versions of themselves in Wild West Shows, just like T.J.’s.

The love-story between T.J. and Tuck also plays out a traditional theme of the Western: the domination of the “wild” by the “civilised”, for monetary gain, domestic security and ultimately, procreation to consolidate that security. Tuck fantasises about using the money from Gwangi’s capture to move to Wyoming, buy “the most galdarnest beautiful ranch” and raise cows and horses. “And kids?” adds T.J., hopefully. “Yeah”, says Tuck, not listening. 

Gwangi in a cage in The Valley of Gwangi

THE UGLY

OH GOD THE DUBBING ON GILA GOLAN. Because of her Israeli accent, the production used another actress to overdub her lines (badly). Add in a few instances of predictable misogyny, some cultural slurs about “miscellaneous gypsies” with no clear cultural identity apart from “miscellaneous gypsy” and you’ve got a recipe for some pretty awkward scenes. The script has a liberal peppering of some great / awful corndog lines, too:

Tuck: You don’t seem glad to see me, Champ.
Champ: About as glad as a dying mule to see a vulture.
Tuck: I’m no vulture. Bird on the wing, maybe.
Champ: Yeah, flying to the next quick buck.

What can I say? Sometimes you have to take the bitter with the sweet. Any criticism I could level at The Valley of Gwangi is overpowered by the sheer brilliance Harryhausen’s special effects. Gwangi even gets his own credit at the end. Also, it’s also nigh on impossible to watch this film without yelling “GWAAAAAANGI!!” for several hours afterwards. 

Let’s just hope that some bright spark in Hollywood doesn’t think it’s time for a CGI remake. That would be truly monstrous.

This review was first published when I took star billing as Western Reviewer and Snake Oil Extraordinaire at the Pornokitsch Wild West Bonanza.

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