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Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Valley of Gwangi

Warner Brothers / Seven Arts produced an A-grade film that defies easy categorization. The Valley of Gwangi (TVG) proved that cowboys are a versatile story component. You can mix them almost anything: dinosaurs, aliens, whatever. The stop-motion animation of the various critters, great and small, was done by the great Ray Harryhausen. While not his last animation, it was his last go at dinosaurs. James Franciscus and Gila Golan star, but Harryhausen's work dominates the movie. The story, originally written by King Kong effects master, Willis O'Brien, was itself an adaptation of the basic Kong story. A giant creature is captured from his native Eden, hauled into civilization to be exhibited, breaks loose, rampages, and dies. But, instead of a giant gorilla, the beast is an allosaurus.

  Quick Plot Synopsis A battered and bloody gypsy man staggers and dies just as his family find him. In a burlap bag is the miniature horse he took from the Forbidden Valley. The old woman of the clan warns that it will bring a curse on them. Carlos gets the miniature horse for T.J. Breckenridge (Golan) who is running a traveling wild-west show cum circus that travels around Mexico. The tiny horse is to be the star act that makes her show profitable again. Enter Tuck Kirby (Franciscus) who was once TJ's boyfriend, but he left her. The gypsies sneak in and steal back the eohippus. Carols blames Tuck, but it was actually Professor Bromley who tipped off the gypsies. He wanted to follow them to find the source. They find a narrow passage cave through the ring of mountains. In the forbidden valley, a pterodactyl almost carries off Lope. Carlos wrestles it and kills it. They chase an Ornithomimus, thinking to capture it for TJ's circus. However, a big blue allosaurus, named Gwangi, catches and eats it first. They all flee Gwangi, while a Styracosaurus intimidates him. They find a cave to hide in. Tuck asks TJ to settle down with him in Wyoming. She agrees. Eventually, Gwangi finds their hideout cave, but the Styracosaurus arrives again. While they do battle, everyone rides away, like the wind. Gwangi gives chase, catching and eating Carlos. Everyone else gets out through the cave. Gwnagi is too big, so gets stuck. In freeing himself, he causes a rock slide which knocks him out. Tuck, Champ and the others tie up Gwangi and take him back for TJ's circus. TJ fancies a world tour with Gwangi over settling down in Wyoming. Tuck is hurt. Meanwhile, the gypsies conspire to free Gwangi before he is exhibited. The dwarf gypsy loosens the bolts on Gwangi's cage, but gets caught and eaten anyhow. Gwangi breaks out of his cage, causing the stadium crowd to stampede for all exits. Many people flee to an old cathedral under renovation. Gwangi follows them in, so they trap him inside. His big tail knocks over conveniently placed pots of open fire. This catches the drapes on fire. Soon the whole place is engulfed. Gwangi screams in pain and takes a long time to die. Outside, the crowd watch in stunned silence as the cathedral crumbles amid the flames and plaintive roars. The End.

  Why is this movie fun?
That's easy. Cowboys AND dinosaurs. What's not to love? Harryhausen's work is excellent and usually well integrated into the live-action.

  Cold War Angle
Since the story is a recast of the classic Kong theme, and Kong was pre-Cold War, TVG has no Cold War to it. Just good ol' monster rampaging.

Cowboy-Dino Redux -- As unusual a mix as it is, TVG is not the first time cowboys and dinosaurs have been together. In 1956, the indie film Beast of Hollow Mountain had a group of cowboys, also in Mexico, discover a T-Rex. They don't want to capture it for exhibition, just to stop it from eating their cattle. Instead of the beast burning in a church, they lure it into some quicksand in the swamp. TVG is a far superior film, just not the first. Before all of that, and even before King Kong, there was the silent film version of Conan Doyle's "Lost World" which also featured some dinosaurs brought back from a hidden valley, for exhibition, who also break free, rampage and die.

  Gila Revoiced -- Actress Gila Golan is obviously dubbed with some other woman's voice, but why? The dubbing job is only passable at times, suggesting that it was a last-minute decision. Watch Our Man Flint ('66) to hear her real voice. She is clear and articulate enough, but does have something of a latent eastern European accent, like a mild Gabor sister. The original producers and director must have been okay with Golan's accent when they cast her. She was hardly the only well-built beauty available at the time. It may be that some late-to-the-table producer at WB/7A, who viewed the final cut and didn't like the sound of her. Perhaps he thought it was too close to the Green Acres scenario of an eastern european accented beauty amid American rustics. So, he ordered all of Golan's lines dubbed with a blandly American-sounding voice.

  Harryhausen's Last Dino -- Ray would continue to do stop motion animation after TVG, but this was his last dinosaur movie. Dinosaur films were falling out of favor at the box office and would remain so until CGI-animated ones made a comeback in Jurassic Park in the 80s. Some scenes in TVG look like inspiration for scenes in Jurassic Park.

  Great Score -- One of the highlights of TVG is the rousing musical score by Jerome Moross. The motif is pure western, full of galloping cadence and manly brass. It ranks right up there with the themes from The Magnificent Seven and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and How The West Was Won.

 Bottom line? TVG is often listed as a sci-fi movie, but has little science to it, beyond a backwater paleontologist spewing some blather about evolution and wanting to study the dinosaurs (which by their very existence seem to disprove his blind faith in evolution). Beyond that, it's essentially a ramping monster film. As a film, TVG is rollicking and fun, provided one does not take it too seriously. Harryhausen's work is worth watching, regardless.

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