The Valley of Gwangi
THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (1969)
PreCommentary: RKO had planned this film in 1942, but lacked sufficient funding. Willis O’Brien’s original title, his story (involving cowboys),and his sketches were used by Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer;a British Museum paleontologist sculpted models for Warner Bros.
Notes: WarnerBrothers / Seven Arts. 96 minutes. The video box reads: “Cowboysbattle monsters in the strangest roundup of all!”
Tuck Kirby: James Franciscus [“Finderof Lost Loves”!]
T.J. Breckenridge: Gila Golan
Professor Bromley: Laurence Naismith
Lope: Curtis Arden
Tia Zorena: Freda Jackson
Carlos: Gustave Rojo
Champ: Richard Carlson
Howdy: Dennis Kilbane
Bean: Mario de Barro
Produced: Charles H. Schneer
Directed: James O’Connolly
Screenplay: William E. Bast
Visual Effects: Ray Harryhausen
Music: Jerome Moross.
Summary: Miguel’s dying word to brother Carlos: “Gwangi.” Anold blind gypsy woman anticipates a curse. Credits.
At a turn-of-the-century Mexico parade, youngLope pesters newly arrived Tuck Kirby for chores and money, andis hired to guide him to the arena outside of town where a wildwest show is playing. T.J. Breckenridge owns it, and she ridesa horse which does a high dive. Tuck had run out on her yearsago and is back for smug talk (“I might have to put you acrossmy knee”) and to buy Omar “the wonder horse” forBuffalo Bill’s show. T.J. throws him out while he smirks, “My,my, you always did look sweet in a temper.”
Florid Professor Bromley is not an archaeologistbut a paleontologist: “We dig deeper.” Tuck saves Lopefrom a bull, so T.J. is fine now with the slimeball and showshim what Carlos has brought from the Forbidden Valley which willsave the foundering show: “El Diablo,” an eohippus (“dawnhorse”) which should be extinct, taken to be just a miniaturehorse by the show people. Carlos won’t reveal his source, soTuck and the Professor have Lope take them to the gypsy camp wherethe blind woman, Tia Zorina, refuses to help. The Professor secretlytells her where the little horse is kept so that she’ll have itstolen and returned, whereby he can follow.
After the gypsies do steal the eohippus, everyonefollows someone to the Forbidden Valley, a “circle of mountains,jagged peaks, . . . perfect barrier.” All meet up and chasethe released eohippus into a crevice which becomes a passage whenthey remove some rocks. They ride inside, and Lope is pickedoff his mount by a pterodactyl. When it lands to eat, Carlosbreaks its neck. An ornithomimus appears; “Let’s get itfor the show!” They chase it but a tyrannosaur, Gwangi,snatches it. One cowboy shoots; Gwangi charges; they flee. Astyracosaur blocks one way and has a stand-off with Gwangi whothen takes off with the dead pterodactyl.
The bullets were blanks from the show. Theyset up camp on a ledge and set a trap. T.J. and Tuck talk ofselling out and settling on a Wyoming ranch. Their kiss is interruptedby the trap catching the Professor. The next day Gwangi chasesTuck to the ledge. Cowboys jab at the mouth with spears, Tuckbelow with fire. They ride out and lasso Gwangi, but he bitesthe ropes off and fights the styracosaur. During their escape,Carlos is eaten. Gwangi tries to follow through the passage buta rock slide knocks him out. They tie him and wagon him backto the arena. Along the way, the gypsy warns them again, knowingfrom a dream that Carlos, like his brother Miguel, has died. “Balderdash,” says the Professor. “The only thingthat’s evil about him are his jaws.” “Defy the lawand perish,” she replies.
An argument regarding scientific research vs.degrading circus stunts is pointless, and T.J. has temporarilyabandoned the Wyoming idea. Now Tuck’s so noble? He walks out,but within half a minute she runs to him. At the show, duringan elephant act, a gypsy dwarf undoes part of the Gwangi cage,but at the curtain rises, Gwangi is eating him. Gwangi eescapes,the cage door crushes the Professor, the crowd panics, fruit basketsspill. Gwangi kills the elephant, kills and drops a Mexican,and chases people into a cathedral. They rush out the back whileTuck tries to trap Gwangi inside. T.J. and Lope are corneredin the cathedral, while Tuck jabs at Gwangi with a flagpole. After a tug-of-war, the organ disorients the tyrannosaur for Tuckto spear him in the head. In their escape, Tuck heaves a litbrazier at the animal and starts a fire. Screaming and panicking,the dinosaur hits another over with its tail. The cathedral burnsrapidly and Gwangi looks to the heavens (we see a round stainedglass window) while perishing in flames. Onlookers see the cathedralcollapse and are silent.
Commentary: Gwangi is a glistening blue color–quite attractive. Ultimatelythough, I don’t get it. I know he’s Willis O’Brien, but dinosaursand cowboys? It seems like a bonehead idea to me. And JamesFranciscus, bleach-blond? I know he’s the Finder of Lost Lovesand his teeth glow in the dark, but he and “T.J.”–whocares? And why do only gypsies and Mexicans die?
And why doesn’t anyone have anything to sayat the end? This final silence is too frequent in action andhorror movies, as if the explosions are so jaw-dropping awesomethat mere language fails. But then we get no final perspectivewhatsoever.
Nor is one prompted to pursue sticky questions(as we do at the end of King Kong) such as the natureof superstition here and the religious imagery. I ought to bemotivated to wonder about the connection between the gypsies’avoidance of the Forbidden Valley and the Mexicans’ flight tothe cathedral, and why the finale has Gwangi burning in flamesand looking upwards towards the stained glass window. But I’mnot.