The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Own it!

review by Scott Hamilton and Chris Holland
See also:

Golden Voyage of Sinbad


Mighty Peking Man

The Valley of Gwangi

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Our rating: three LAVA® motion lamps.

Valley of Gwangi
Gwangi always wanted to join the circus,
and now he was going to get his chance.
It took nearly thirty years for The Valley of Gwangi to be made, and it's probably a better film for the wait. Although Willis O'Brien (the special effects pioneer best known for the classic King Kong) had the idea for a movie featuring cowboys and dinosaurs way back in 1942, the film wasn't actually produced until 1969. By then, the color film technology and stop-motion animation techniques so desperately needed to bring this wild fantasy to life were more easily accessible, thanks to special effects maestro Ray Harryhausen.

The valley of Gwangi, as you've probably guessed, is one of those favorite devices of fantasy writers: the place that time forgot.* The valley, surrounded by an inpenetrable barrier of mountains, is the last place where prehistoric life still exists. All prehistoric life, apparently. Mammals like the horse ancestor eohippus live alongside dinosaurs and their contempories, like the allosaur and the pteranodon, despite the fact that these animals didn't live within 30 million years of each other. Please ignore the fact that pteranodons can fly and could presumably escape the valley – the writer sure did.

After a confusing opening scene in which some gypsies argue about a vague legend, we meet our hero: Tuck Kirby, as played by James "They Couldn't Get Heston" Franciscus. Kirby is a rootin'-tootin' turn-of-the-century cowboy with peroxide hair and unbelievably large and perfect teeth. Kirby has come to a small Mexican town to purchase a circus act for Buffalo Bill's show, and as luck would have it, the act belongs to a certain ex-girlfriend, T.J. (Gila Golan). T.J. isn't very welcoming to Tuck at first, but warms back up to him after he risks his life in a bullring to save his newfound guide, a boy named Lope (Curtis Arden).

Valley of Gwangi
"STOP! We represent the Lullabye League!"
T.J. won't sell the circus act to Buffalo Bill because she has a new feature which will make it profitable again. This new act is a miniature horse, the aforementioned eohippus. Kirby, having had a short chat with a visiting paleontologist, recognizes it for what it is and learns the legend of the Valley of Gwangi in short order. The resident crazy blind gypsy lady, complete with gypsy dwarf companion, warns all who will listen that the animal must be returned to the valley or doom will visit them all. Geez, how many gypsies are there in Mexico, anyway?

The paleontologist, Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith), learns of the eohippus, and cons the gypsy lady into stealing the horse so that he can follow her to the valley. Tuck and T.J. find the horse missing and take off after Bromley with their own posse and discover the secret passage into the valley.

It takes an excruciatingly boring forty-five minutes to get to this point in the story, during which the only sign of prehistoric life is the stupid eohippus. Honestly, the setup could have been a bit shorter and more entertaining. With the promise of dinosaurs ahead, it's just not much fun watching Eddie the Wonder Horse jump into a pool of water from a height. (And hey, they even had Harryhausen animate the Wonder Horse!)

Valley of Gwangi
"I've got an idea! Why don't we stop fighting
amongst ourselves and pick up some nice
Soylent Green for dinner?"
Once our band of cowboy circus folk reach the valley, however, it's full speed ahead, with three dinosaurs appearing in the space of five minutes. There's even a pteranadon who carries Lope away for a quick snack – now we're cookin' with gas! One of the few moments in which we were actively rooting for Kirby was when he jumped atop the hungry pteranadon and wrestled it into submission, saving his little buddy Lope from certain death again. There are also a few amusing plot twists to keep the action moving – like the discovery that the circus performers' guns are, per usual, loaded with blanks. D'oh!

The centerpiece of it all, of course, is the allosaurus named (what else?) Gwangi who becomes the focus of our heroes' attentions. After taking down another dinosaur, Gwangi is quickly targeted to become the headlining act in T.J.'s circus. Anyone else who thinks this is a bad idea, raise your hand.

The Valley of Gwangi probably had a writer and a director, but like many films of its kind, we didn't pay attention to who they were. In our minds this film is a Ray Harryhausen film. Just about everything in the film that isn't stop-motion animated is window dressing. And unlike most special effects today, these were really the work of one man with a recognizable style. Harryhausen created most of the memorable special effects movies of the '50s and the '60s, and all of those films are Harryhausen films, even if he didn't direct or write any of them. (He did originate a few projects, though.)

When the Valley of Gwangi finally hits its stride, it delivers a non-stop calvacade of dinosaurs. Luckily enough, these film makers realized that there's no point in finding dinosaurs alive in the present (or near present) without bringing them to civilization. We get nearly equal parts of Jurassic Park style running around in the lost land and dinos rampaging around the city. If only Spielberg had been that canny and given us more than ten minutes of dinosaurs smashing the Quickie-Mart in the four and half hours of Jurassic Park movies he directed. Oh well, maybe the next JP movie will be as much fun as The Valley of Gwangi.

Review date: 02/03/1999

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* As a matter of fact, a couple of the many alternate titles for this film were: The Valley that Time Forgot and The Valley Where Time Stood Still. Go back!