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HCF may be one of the newest voices on the web for all things Horror and Cult, and while our aim is to bring you our best opinion of all the new and strange that hits the market, we still can not forget about our old loves, the films that made us want to create the website to spread the word.  So, now and again our official critics at the HCF headquarters have an urge to throw aside their new required copies of the week and dust down their old collection and bring them to the fore….our aim, to make sure that you may have not missed the films that should be stood proud in your collection.  With the recent release of Cowboys And Aliens, Dr Lenera decided to take a look at another film that combines cowboys with something else, this time dinosaurs!




REVIEWED BY:Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic

1900 in New Mexico.  T.J.Breckenridge hosts a rodeo that is struggling, and her former fiancée Tuck Kirby, a stuntman, wants to buy her out.  Meanwhile British palaeontologist Horace Bromley finds small fossilized horse tracks in the desert which could be from a prehistoric Eohippus and shows Tuck.  When Tuck returns to T.J., she shows him something she hopes will boost attendance at her show – a tiny horse.  However, the horse, which is indeed a living Eohippus, came from a place called the Forbidden Valley and a gypsy appears to claim it should be returned otherwise the powerful ‘Gwangi’ will kill them all.  She organises a group of thieves to steal the horse and take it back to the valley, but Tuck and the others are in hot pursuit………..


The work of special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen, who perfected the art of ‘stop-motion’ – photographing inanimate models so it appears they move – in films like Jason And The Argonauts [1963] and The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad [1974], has attained an almost [appropriately] mythological status today.  It has influenced a great many filmmakers from Steven Spielberg to Peter Jackson, and though today one can sometimes see flaws in the effects, one has to remember they were done with no computer technology whatsoever, with the process being so time consuming that two minutes of footage could take around a month to complete.  The films themselves, being fantasy adventures where the scripts were often written around already planned monster sequences, may have their flaws but they also have an innocent charm and sense of wonder which still have the power to enrapture children today.  The Valley Of Gwangi is not the best of the films by far, and was a notable flop upon release [Harryhausen, blaming the films failure on the trend for increasing sex, said “obviously a naked dinosaur was not outrageous enough”], but it has plenty of entertainment value if you like your dinosaurs, and the blending of genres works fairly well.

The origins of the film go back to a 1946 script by King Kong creator Willis O’ Brien called Valley Of The Mists, which bore many obvious similarities to his classic 1933 film ,most notably the idea of a lost world inhabited by prehistoric creatures and ruled over by one particular one, but set the action in the Old West.  As with several other projects, he couldn’t get financing for it and it remained in limbo for many years.  Then in 1956 the very low budget The Beast Of Hollow Mountain based its story on the script, though it removed all the dinosaurs except for the main Allosaurus.  This rather poor effort obviously inspired Harryhausen and his usual producer Charles H.Schneer to do better and in 1968 they hired William Best to adapt O’ Brien’s original script and add a bit more action.  The film’s weak box office wasn’t helped by Warners releasing it as the bottom half of double bills with various films of a more adult nature including two biker movies, ensuring the movie missed much of its target audience. It has gained a considerable cult following over the years though amusingly in 1995 the BBFC gave the video a ‘12’ certificate, because they thought the word  “f***” was said once. They were wrong and the DVD was rated ‘U’, though I am surprised it wasn’t a ‘PG’ as there is a surprising amount of blood in the movie, dinosaur and human!

It must be said, Valley Of Gwangi takes forever to get going.  Of course many a great monster movie, including King Kong, benefitted from a lengthy build up but this one really just seems to be marking time in some of the first half, with lots of talky scenes between Tuck and T.J., and between Tuck and Pepe, an orphaned boy who for a while becomes his only real friend.  I can imagine rows of young kids [well, those who actually got to see it] getting restless waiting for the good bits!  Still, you do get to see the tiny prehistoric horse the Eohippus a few times, and when everyone eventually heads into the Forbidden Valley two fifths or so of the way through, the dino action comes thick and fast.  Highlights include a Pteranodon lifting Pepe off his horse,  Gwangi, the Allosaurus who seems to be the ‘ruler’ of the area suddenly appearing to eat a small Ornithominus, Gwangi battling a Styracosaurus, and the film’s highlight, the ten minute sequence where the cowboys try to lasso Gwangi.

This scene, which had the humans lasso a jeep over which was matted the dinosaur, took five and a half months to do and required incredibly painstaking work to get everything to match.  In some shots even some lassos were animated.  Yes, at times Gwangi seems to fluctuate in size, but just think that not a single computer was used in the scene, everything was done by hand.  I don’t often get very impressed any more when I see CGI these days, even if it’s flawless, because in my opinion it is easy compared what Harryhausen and many of his contempories were doing.   It’s the same with full CG animation – yes, I can appreciate the work done in films like Toy Story, but not nearly so much as in movies like Pinnochio where every cel was painted by hand.  There may be a few visual flaws with the roping scene in The Valley Of Gwangi, but I never fail to watch it with total awe and astonishment.

The story proceeds along familiar lines, with Gwangi captured and then escaping, taking in a pointless battle with an elephant [the same thing happened in Harryhausen’s much earlier Twenty Million Miles To Earth] and quite a hair raising climax in a cathedral.  The script is sometimes ridiculous – yes, we can possibly except that dinosaurs can live in the Mexican Desert undiscovered, but surely hardly any of them would have been of large due to the restrictive space and barren terrain, and what do the vegetarian ones eat?   Though obviously partly due to budget restrictions,  it’s always been rather silly the way many dinosaur films have the creatures appear one by one, rather than in herds, something the Jurassic Park films and the last King Kong remake corrected.   Talking of Jurassic Park, its special effects folk apparently studied The Valley Of Gwangi for the way its dinosaurs moved, and even borrowed the odd moment.  The film as a whole though has too many holes and leaves too many questions to really satisfy. Why does one cowboy stab the Styracosaurus whilst it is fighting Gwangi?  Why does the Pteranodon fall on the ground when carrying Pepe, indicating that the boy is too heavy yet the same creatures had no trouble carrying off fully grown humans in previous films?  What exactly is Gwangi anyway?  He’s usually named as an Allosaurus, and is the size of one, but has some characteristics of a Tyrannosaurus Rex and wouldn’t it have been better if they had gone with that?

James Franciscus was a very likeable leading man, as is proven here, but never really became a star – outside of much TV work, he’s probably only really known for Beneath The Planet Of The Apes and The Cat o’ Nine Tails.  Female lead Gila Golan, who was dubbed, is quite poor in the early scenes though does improve later.  The same can’t be said for the score by Jerome Morass, which is vibrant and full blooded and provides as hummable a Western-style theme as you could imagine.  I can’t understand why it still hasn’t been released on CD!  In some respects this is a somewhat lazy film, and some might say it’s one of those that is basically just worth watching for the action and the special effects, but when they are as impressive as they are here and represent a special effects genius or more than that, a special effects artist, at the height of his powers, do things like plot and character matter that much?  Saying that though,  I think there is far more character and even humanity in one of Harryhausen’s plastic monsters than the entire cast of Avatar.

Rating: ★★★★★★½☆☆☆

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About Dr Lenera 1971 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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