Here we go again…. it’s yet another chance to peek back to this Lil’ Catgirl’s childhood and find out just what sort of movies kept lil’ Miyuki glued to her TV in those innocent years of my childhood. This time out… it’s 1967’s “The Valley of Gwangi” by the amazing special effects wizard of stop motion animation, Ray Harryhausen.
Ooooohhh!! Cowboys… and dinosaurs!! Frolicking together in the Old West… whooping it up… trying to kill each other… doing whatever it is cowboys and dinosaurs will do when they manage to actually (and, perhaphs, implausibly) meet up. How could lil’ Miyuki not watch this one?
Our quick synopsis for it reads: “A ragtag group of cowboys find a lost valley in Mexico and manage to capture an Allosaurus, named Gwangi. They decide to capitalize on their exploit by putting it on show as the featured attraction at a fading traveling circus despite the objections of superstitious locals. As with all such plans, it turns out to be a bad… bad idea.”
Yep, even today, this particular film still holds a fond place in my memories… But is it really any good, or am I just remembering it through the marvelous haze of childhood nostalgia? Let’s all take another look and find out, shall we?
When I was a wee lil’ Catgirl, this movie was the pinnacle of special effects wizardry from it’s time…. and the futuristic computer effects of today were only just starting to be seen in those big screen films that were coming out in the early 80’s. I remember that I caught this one, as I did soooo many others, through the medium of Cable TV one Saturday afternoon. Remember when there weren’t yet 500 channels? When much of the fledgling new cable network channels filled their schedules by running old movies on Saturday and Sunday mornings, afternoons, and most late nights? Well I certainly do…. After all, it was a steady diet of 50’s Scifi films, Tarzan Movies, cheesy Chinese Kung-fu imports, euro zombie flicks, and nazisploitation movies that kept me imagining all sorts of crazy things as a lil’ kid…. and worried my poor Mom to no end.
Ahhh… this one…. now it was a real corker!! We start out with a dying Gypsy guy…. and a mysterious… squirming… burlap sack, and the craziest looking Gypsy witch since “The Wolf Man” going on about the terrible “Curse of Gwangi”…. Yep, you just knew this one was gonna be good! So…. what’s in the sack you ask? Well, now that’s the thing the whole movies revolves around….
It isn’t long before Tuck Kirby (played by James Franciscus of “Beneath the Planet of the Apes”) comes to town looking for his former fiance, T.J. Brenkenridge (played by former 1960’s Miss Israel, Gila Golan) who owns this fading and rundown Wild West show, ala “Buffalo Bill”…. He’s here to try to buy her out, seems she’s still got one truly worthwhile property… Omar the Wonder Horse, who does this amazing high dive act. He figures on using his boyish charm and some references to “the good ol’ days” to overcome T.J.’s dislike of his rather repulsive personality and steal this show out from under her while she’s at her weakest. Luckily… she’s soooo over him and tells him she’s got a new attraction that will save her show (just not what it is…)… and that she doesn’t need him hanging around… and she sends him packing. Good for you, T.J.!!
Well…. Tuck isn’t exactly the kind of huckster willing to take no for an answer, so with a little bit of sneaking around, he finds out that T.J.’s got her own “My Little Pony” thing going on….. for real. Yep, seems she went ahead and bought that squirmy bag from one of those Gypsies named Carlos, (who just luckily works for her circus as some sort of roustabout), and in it was just the cutest lil’ prehistoric pony!! Awwwwhhh!! So cute!! So what do you do with a wee lil’ horsey anyway? Why teach him to dance on a platform you mount to the saddle of your amazing wonder steed Omar, of course! That’ll certainly wow the crowds and bring in the money!
Tuck learns it’s actually an Eohippus… (C’mon.. say THAT three times fast… I dare ya!!) from a nice old (read: crazy old) paleontologist named Horace Bromley (played by Laurence Naismith of “Village of the Damned” fame) thanks to his helpful orphan go-fer Lupé, who just seems to know all the interesting people thereabouts. He’s the one who really gets the ball rolling wondering just where this lil’ horsey came from exactly…. and if there are even more interesting non-extinct critters lurking about just waiting to be discovered.
Tuck hears the “Cha-ching!!” implicit in that bit of scientific curiosity and decides to partner up with T.J. to explore the possibility of grabbing some other varmints for the show. After all, he’s got his own “scientific expert” to offer such a partnership… and he’s sorta still romantically hung up on T.J. too…. But…. it seems the Gypsies have other ideas.
That nasty ol’ Gypsy witch has convinced them that Carlos is going to bring down the terrible “Curse of Gwangi” upon them all for having stolen the cute lil’ horsey away from him…. so they bust in and steal the little guy back to return him to… now just wait for it… the “Forbidden Valley”!! Yep, just what lil’ Miyuki was waiting to hear!! (I was just about stuffed to the gills with popcorn by now and soooo aching for some cowboy versus dinosaur action….) If you know the formula for these films, it pretty easy to guess what happens next.
In fact… this one pretty much plays out like most of the Harryhausen films I’ve seen. There’s always a number of really nifty sequences featuring the creatures…. all strung together with a fairly formulaic plot. But those sequences!! Always worth the wait. Let’s see…. we get the little horsey of course, but there’s also a Pteranodon that swoops in and tries to eat little Lupé, a fast running long necked thingee that shows up just to be chased so the cowboys can see big ol’ Gwangi show up for the first time and gobble it up, a Styracosaurus that shows up mostly so Gwangi has somebody to kick the prehistoric stuffing out of…. you get the picture. The animated creatures are… well… dated by today’s “Jurrassic Park” standards, but when you realize the sheer amount of work…. by mostly one man… to get these effects, then they are truly amazing accomplishments.
Lil’ Miyuki was soooo loving this stuff, and I have to say, even grown up me liked watching this all over again. Harryhausen always had the gift to give his creations an almost eerie lifelike quality, and by the time the cowboys finish their expedition and get ol’ Gwangi tied up and decide to haul his big lizard butt back to the circus you just know it’s gonna go a lot differently than they planned. Did nobody learn the lessons of “King Kong”? Giant prehistoric critters always… and I mean always… escape and run amok at the climax of any movie. That… and they make terrible.. terrible… pets.
Yep… the Gypsy witch has to show up and get her followers to free Gwangi at the pivotal moment, (he’s a “god” after all) but at least we get to see a cool battle to the death between an elephant and an Allosaur… something we always wondered about when I was a kid, Hehehehe. Then it’s a leisurely romp through town chasing locals, till Gwangi catches up with our hero and heroine at the grand cathedral for the fiery climax. Makes perfect sense that the best way to kill an unstoppable eating machine like Gwangi is to bury him under a flaming church. Honest… it’s exactly what 9 out of 10 cowboys would do in a similar situation….
So… how did this one stack up seeing it again after all these years? Well… it scores high on the ol’ nostalgia meter, but even the passing of decades has not dimmed the sheer fun and amazement that Gwangi evokes for me. Ray Harryhausen was a genius… pure and simple… and this film shows his work at some of it’s best.
Neko gives “The Valley of Gwangi” a well deserved 4 “Meows” out of 5 for being a true masterpiece well worth sharing with the lil’ ones you love…. you can trust this Catgirl, they’ll be thrilled.
Naturally there’s a Trailer for this classic… isn’t there always a Trailer?…