The Valley of Gwangi (1969) ****

The special effects are in the five-star range while the movie into which they fit is really worth no more than three stars so I’ve compromised, hence the four-star rating. Actually, the story and characters are interesting enough, and there are some stunning cowboy stunts,  though where is a fur-lined bikini when you need one. Although we are treated to prehistoric monsters, humans fail to have managed the transition to the hidden valley where the creatures have kept out of sight for millions of years. Instead, we are in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Mexico.

However, one specimen, a miniature horse, known as El Diablo, has been found and now resides in a rodeo, property of T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) whose showstopping turn involves leaping on horseback from a high platform through a ring of fire into a pool of water.  Ex-flame and sleek salesman Tuck (James Franciscus) and archaeologist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) follow gypsies who aim to return the horse to the Forbidden Valley. T.J. and a band of cowboys are in pursuit.

I saw this double bill in 1969 when it was shown on the ABC circuit in Britain.

Widening a tiny gap into the unknown world also of course means it’s not big enough for the monsters to escape. The valley is ruled by Gwangi, an Allosaurus, which to most of the audience looks remarkably like a T. Rex. Various battles ensure. A Pteranadon swoops down from the sky and captures one of the cowboys but is killed by Carlos (Gustavo Rojo). Gwangi fights an Ornithomimus and a Styracosaurus. Even if your knowledge of prehistoric monsters  isn’t up to identifying each creature, no matter, the fights are very well done, and a step up in terms of special effects from similar tussles in Harryhausen’s previous venture in One Million Years B.C. (1966) especially as we are less distracted by females attired in fur bikinis.

Naturally, the intent is to capture Gwangi and put him on show a la King Kong (1933) and it’s equally obvious how this particular maneuver is going to work out. That the story follows this particular angle is down to the fact that the movie was the original idea of Willis O’Brien, the special effects genius to created King Kong. After considerable development, RKO shelved the project on the assumption the public was not interested in dinosaurs.

Meanwhile, back in the human tale, the previously principled T.J. lets greed get the better of her and begins resisting Tuck’s overtures. Even if you can guess the finale, it is pretty well done.

Ray Harryhausen only had a limited fanbase in the 1960s, otherwise this picture would not have done the rounds as the supporting feature to Robert Mitchum western The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969). You can tell it lacked the budget of One Million Years B.C. because the creatures fail to remain a consistent color. Even so, this ranks as one of the top special effects achievements and these days Harryhausen’s work is much more appreciated.

Unless you are Raquel Welch, it’s difficult for an actor to compete with prehistoric monsters. At least here, the stars had decent dialogue and the tangled romance provides entertainment as do the host of stunning stunts in the rodeo and a bull running amok. Charlton Heston look-alike James Franciscus (Youngblood Hawke, 1964) is a plausible love interest who doesn’t let romance get in the way of a fast buck. The role of Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, 1966) extends to more than eye candy and there’s not a bikini in sight or disrobing of any sort. Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954) was a sci-fi veteran and Laurence Naismith had appeared in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). British actress Freda Jackson (The Third Secret, 1964) plays a witch.

Director Jim O’Connolly (Vendetta for the Saint, 1969) keeps the human elements rolling along and once monsters join in the fun there’s scarcely time to draw breath. William Bast (Hammerhead, 1968) pulled together the human and monster elements for the screenplay.

Harryhausen fans will have a ball.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

7 thoughts on “The Valley of Gwangi (1969) ****”

  1. Remembered this but it failed to attract viewers and was withdrawn within 2-3 days of screening. This too also lacked star power. Compliments of the Season!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I always want to like this film more than I really do. I guess it’s the story execution as you point out cause it’s Harryhausen at his best. I also think it’s lesser known due to it’s being handled by Warner Bros. … meaning it is not included in any of the fine box sets that have been available over the years focusing on Ray’s work.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t realise it had not been given the top class revival treatment. That is a shame. I kind of screen out the surrounding story and concentrate on the effects. The films based on myth work much better because the stories are much better.

      Liked by 2 people

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