The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
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Critic Reviews for The Valley of Gwangi
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An implausible B film fantasy sci-fi venture. But it should delight the fans of special effects maven Ray Harryhausen more than others.
Best thought of as one of the pictures to get out of the way later rather than sooner when you decide to see everything Ray Harryhausen did.
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Audience Reviews for The Valley of Gwangi
With the recent release of Jurassic World my favorite local movie chain Cleveland Cinemas wanted to re-screen the first Jurassic Park film with the midnight early release of Jurassic World to follow. The studio did not consent because the Jurassic trilogy was scheduled to re-air on TV in the week leading up to the new release. So, The Valley of Gwangi was cleverly chosen instead. A scientist from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History also spoke about archaeology at the screening. My schedule prevented me from seeing the movie on the big screen, so, ultimately I watched this at home on a library DVD. Jurassic Park is about the island theme park where the plan is that the public will pay to see dinosaurs brought back to life. Gwangi, brought to life by special effects titan Ray Harryhausen, is about Wild West show performers capturing ancient monsters to display to the paying public at a rodeo arena. There is even a professor character who is quite similar to Attenborough's Jurassic Park founder, although this professor is more interested in scientific study rather than exploitation. The film is based on sketches that Harryhausen had in his possession from an unrealized project that his mentor Willis O'Brien began. It has the feel of a Spaghetti Western since it was filmed in Spain with an international cast. Spain stands in for Mexico, but instead of being a period western it is set in modern times, the 1960s. There were some cheesy moments with the Mexican gypsies and the horse in the Wild West show that jumps into a shallow pool of water. Also when Harryhausen mimics the movement of a recognizable animal like the tiny prehistoric horse or the elephant the effect is not as impressive as when he animates creatures that require more imagination. In general, I truly enjoyed the action, characters, and dialog that bring this fantastic tale into being.
I don't think this concept could fail to be popular with kids back in the day, cowboys and dinosaurs, what more do you need?!. I also wonder whether or not this film concept may have had something to do influencing the unique 'Cadillacs and Dinosaurs' franchise that spawned comics, cartoons and a Capcom videogame. Again this is the first time seeing this adventure and to be really really honest I felt disappointed. Once again the plot just seems to have been lifted from 'King Kong'. A group of cowboys down in Mexico end up finding a hidden valley full of dinosaurs, they capture one, bring it back to civilisation for their show/circus and low and behold it breaks free and goes on the rampage. It really is quite blatantly copied, I felt a little let down. Of course the film is complete fantasy and not to be taken seriously in any way but there are some major plot holes and questions that do arise. This bunch of cowboys, the token brainy professor and the token attractive female find this hidden valley, yet its not really a valley, it looks more like one simple canyon. So you have to ask yourself how on earth dinosaurs would live and breed in this small enclosed area AND not get found. When they are inside the 'valley' and getting attacked by all manner of creatures they hole up in a cave as if they are trapped, but why? they could leave the valley at any point and do so eventually. But the really amusing thing is the fact most of the group are obsessed with their show/circus and using any dinosaur they can get for display. None seem to realise that simply capturing and presenting a living dinosaur to the world would make them rich and famous beyond belief, they don't need their crummy show haha. Plus when they set out to take this beast back to civilisation where on earth did they get that rather handy dino sized wooden cart from?!!. So silly plot issues aside what about the rest? well its OK but not stunning. Harryhausen's work is evident throughout with a few creatures but none really blow you away as in previous films. The main dinosaurs we see are fun to watch as they battle humans and each other but in general they just don't look so good. Both 'Gwangi' and the Styracosaurus have a strange blue tinge about them which I'm not sure is the film quality or not, and both move a bit statically. We also see a Pteranodon which is nicely animated, the sequence where it grabs a young boy is impressively done. Plus there is a small cameo for a Ornithomimus which was a nice pink colour and had the honour of being chomped up by 'Gwangi' in a quick cool surprise death sequence that has been used by modern films many times. The small miniature horse which initially forms the basis of the plot is well done also but not exactly thrilling, we're all here for man eaters aren't we. Interestingly this is also the first time we see actual life size rubber models of some creatures which the cast grapple with. It works quite well for the odd close quarters shot and doesn't detract from the stop motion. Looks a bit better than just pretending although the models don't look great as would be expected. If you've seen 'King Kong' then you already know what happens in the end, but not before 'Gwangi' fights an elephant. Yep the minute I saw Harryhausen's animated elephant I knew it would be fighting the big mean dinosaur. Now don't get me wrong its a great looking scene, not the best I've seen by a long shot but its solid. The problem is it does feel somewhat overused, in short the battle between the 'Ymir' and an elephant was much much better, they should have done something else. For some reason the whole film feels a bit on the cheap side and just doesn't look as crisp as previous Harryhausen flicks. Obviously production values must have been lower yet the acting is actually pretty good, James Franciscus looking like a young James Coburn and Laurence Naismith really adding some sturdy class as the professor. I hate to say I was disappointed, the films poster looks epic! like some kind of 'Indiana Jones' adventure with Dinosaurs, how could it miss?. 'Cowboys battle monsters in the lost world of forbidden valley', sounds pretty darn cool doesn't it, its just such a shame it doesn't really live up to that, plus the film is set in Mexico so you don't get that true American western feel. A slow rather uninteresting start (merely waiting for dino action) and an all too predictable ending which is made slightly worse because the whole story is basically 'Kong' all over again. Not too sure where the name 'Gwangi' comes from, must be a term in local dialect for the creature? everybody calls it that but no apparent origins for it...meh.
If this movie were released today, the unimaginative promoters would simply title it "Cowboys Versus Dinosaurs". It's amazing it took until 1969 for the western to meet the monster movie. The creator of "King Kong", Willis O'Brien, originally came up with this concept in the forties but couldn't get it made (why the hell not? It's cowboys vs dinosaurs!) His apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, hung onto the concept and thanks to the success of "One Million Years BC" saw his mentors vision realised in spectacular form with this Sunday afternoon staple. The story is really just "King Kong" transplanted to turn of the century Mexico with a giant Allosaurus replacing the great ape. You don't come to a Harryhausen movie for the story though, you come for his creatures and this has some of his best, from a miniature horse to the giant dinos. As far as the movements of the creatures go, this would be his best work prior to "Clash of the Titans". What keeps it in the shadow of "Jason and the Argonauts" and "One Million Years BC" is the interaction between miniatures and real-life actors. Frankly it's quite poor here compared to those earlier movies but the creatures are such fun to watch you probably won't be thinking about that. Franciscus was an unfairly derided performer, always thought of as the poor man's Charlton Heston thanks to his lead role in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes". I once watched that movie with a girl who assumed he was Heston until Mister NRA turned up himself at the end. Here he gives a good performance playing a frankly unlikable character. Golan is certainly easy on the eye (a former Miss Israel) but due to her poor English her dialogue is dubbed terribly. Naismith plays an elderly British paleontologist and was surely an influence on Richard Attenborough's character in "Jurassic Park". One of the movie's best scenes involves the Allosaurus, nicknamed Gwangi by locals, being taken down by lassos and I'm sure George Lucas was paying attention as it's clearly echoed in the At-At sequence from "Empire Strikes Back", probably the pinnacle of stop-motion work. This is a must see for fans of Harryhausen and monster movies, best viewed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with a bowl of popcorn and a raging hangover.
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