I’ll be the first to admit that I had a pretty nifty childhood. But I wouldn’t be an American if I couldn’t find something in it to bitch about, so here goes. I regret not seeing The Valley of Gwangi when I was a kid (it ranks just below never getting one of those Snoopy snow-cone machines for Christmas).
Because if I’d seen it as a kid, it would have been the GREATEST MOVIE EVER. How could it NOT be? It has cowboys vs. dinosaurs. I repeat: COWBOYS VS. DINOSAURS. The only thing that could possibly be more awesome would be armored knights on horseback vs. dinosaurs, or Nazis vs. dinosaurs. Yeah.
(Pause to get all misty-eyed.)
Where was I? Oh yes – well, the problem is that I’m not a kid and seeing The Valley of Gwangi for the first time I’m forced to conclude that it has quite a few flaws (none of them the dinosaurs’ fault, I want to be absolutely clear on this).
In turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico, smarmy cad Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus, all peroxide hair and impossibly white, even teeth) drops in on a Wild West show that’s come to town. Turns out he used to be part of the show, and the show’s star T. J. (Gila Golan, possibly dubbed) used to be his girlfriend. Seems that Tuck has heard the show isn’t doing so well and wants to know if T.J. wants to join him in whatever money-making scheme he’s got going now. Ah, but T.J. has a new attraction that she’s sure will make the Wild West show the talk of the boonies: a miniature horse about the size of a housecat. She’s got a point. It really is the cutest thing.
What T.J. doesn’t know is that the teeny horse is a living fossil – a prehistoric ancestor of modern horses, named eohippus (even its name is cute!). Tuck does know this, however, thanks to a lucky chance encounter with the local paleontologist, and soon T.J., Tuck, the paleontologist and a few others are all fighting for the chance to make a quick buck off the eohippus.
There’s a problem, though. The eohippus comes from a remote valley that the local gypsies say is cursed by a terrible demon named Gwangi. (Don’t question the presence of gypsies in Mexico – we’re already dealing with cowboys vs. dinosaurs, so just roll with it.) So naturally everyone ends up at the remote valley that’s eohippus’ home and find not just cute, teeny horses, but some other prehistoric animals.
Right about now is when the movie kicks in (and considering how unlikable ALL the human characters are, you’d be forgiven for skipping to the dinos). The cowboys soon find themselves beset by pteranodons, styracosaurus, and an allosaurus (this last one is the creature the gypsies call “gwangi”). Before long the cowboys decide to forget eohippus, the allosaurus/gwangi would make an even better addition to their Wild West show! (This scheme didn’t work in any version of King Kong, and it doesn’t work here.)
The Valley of Gwangi is both entertaining as hell and strangely depressing. Once the movie gets to the valley, it’s great. The dinosaurs are a bit dated (particularly in their coloring) but as always Ray Harryhausen is up to the job; the scene in which the cowboys lasso the enraged allosaurus is a masterpiece of stop-motion animation. One can’t help but feel a certain childlike joy at seeing these creatures.
At the same time, one can’t help seeing the movie through a grownup’s eyes, and that means understanding that nearly every character in the film thinks of nothing but their own benefit – this even goes for the paleontologist, who’s less interested in living prehistoric animals than in the glory the discovery will bring him. Likewise, you see the callousness with which the cowboys treat the valley and its inhabitants, and the spectacle that poor gwangi (who was perfectly happy eating other dinosaurs and having grudge matches with styracosaurus) is made into.
Still, it’s a fun, unjustly overlooked movie that’s essential for anyone who loves dinosaurs in general and stop-motion animation in particular.
Extras include trailers and a featurette about the making of the film.
Oh, and it’s pronounced GWAHN-jee. Learn from my example - don’t go around saying GWANG-gee or you’ll lose your street cred with cinephiles.