Sunday 12 June 2011

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Director: Jim O'Connolly
Stars: James Franciscus, Gila Golan and Richard Carlson

'He who takes from Gwangi, the evil one, is cursed.' So says the blind woman in black as the pirate gypsy dude takes the struggling sack from the dying man. That's our setup as we reach the opening credits and it's a pretty good one, painted in Technicolor and filmed in Dynamation. The Valley of Gwangi has a history, one three and a half decades old by the time it was finished. Originally a project of Willis H O'Brien, the original master of stop motion animation, it was finally brought to life by his most prominent protégé, Ray Harryhausen. O'Brien saw it as a follow up to his masterpiece, King Kong, following the same formula but transplanting it to a different setting, with cowboys taking on dinosaurs. Some footage was shot and ended up in the original version of Mighty Joe Young, but it took 36 years to finally reach the screen, at this point set 'somewhere south of the Rio Grande at the turn of the century.' To make it authentic they shot it in Spain.

It all looks good, as the Breckenridge Wild West Show parades through town. We get to see it in action too, in an awesome arena, complete with an Indian attack on a covered wagon, with guns and corpses galore. They even set the wagon on fire. T J Breckenridge has the finalé: she rides a gorgeous horse called Omar up a long set of winding steps and has it leap into a flaming vat of green water. These guys put on a show, but the locals don't care. They stay away in droves, so when Tuck Kirby, T J's former fiancé, shows up to buy the horse, he almost has a chance, even if he bailed on her years earlier. His horse looks even better than Omar, even though it's acquired for him by a local kid called Lope, bizarrely providing an English child actor with the opportunity to make his only big screen appearance as a Mexican. If Willis O'Brien had lived long enough to make his The Valley of Gwangi, it may not have looked better.
The acting is capable too. James Franciscus making a suitably sleazy cowboy, the earliest I've ever seen him, just before Marooned and Beneath the Planet of the Apes. T J, on the other hand, is fiery and continental in the form of Gila Golan. She was born in German-occupied Poland, was adopted by a Roman Catholic couple and sent to school in France, only to emigrate to Israel and become Miss Israel in 1960. She'd changed her name already from Zusia Sobetzcki to Miriam Goldberg but changed it again to compete. She's very pleasing to the eyes, with a sort of Diana Rigg look and a continental flair. She was dubbed here because of the strength of her accent. In the hands of Ray Harryhausen, the stop motion work is solid too, even if it takes a while to arrive and isn't his best work. One glaring problem that may not be his fault is that the colour keeps on changing: his creatures go from grey to flesh coloured to bright blue, depending on the scene.

How do we go from a Wild West show in Mexico to the sort of story that requires the talents of Ray Harryhausen? Well, by means of a hidden valley, of course, one that the locals believe is a cursed land and the creatures are corralled into by high mountains. The first such creature we see is a miniature one, a tiny prehistoric horse called an eohippus that escaped from the valley through a tiny passageway within the rocks. It's the eohippus that brings most of our characters together. T J, who has it, calls it El Diablo and has trained it to dance on horseback. She plans to use it to bring back the customers to her show. English paleontologist Prof Bromley is out in the desert with its footprints in a fossilised human bone, hoping to validate his theory of humanoids and push the dawn of man back millions of years. Tia Zorina, the local blind gypsy leader, only aims to return it to the valley to keep her land and people from being cursed.
It's when El Diablo brings the various characters together that the story really begins, in the Forbidden Valley with a host of stop motion dinosaurs. As they find their way in, they're attacked by a pterodactyl, chase an ornithomimus, which is killed by an allosaurus, which then attacks them. They run away but the Prof stays behind, to be saved by a styracosaurus. After a long wait to see one animated monster, we're suddenly presented with a barrage of them. The allosaurus, of course, is Gwangi, which means 'lizard' in Spanish, and it's Gwangi who gets most attention and screen time, from his initial appearance to a grand finalé inside a vast Catholic cathedral. In between, there are a number of scenes, including a complicated roping, which proved to be one of Harryhausen's most ambitious and time consuming; and an exhibition and escape, which saw this allosaurus fight an elephant. Of course there's glorious chaos. That's why we're here.

The premise is a solid one, rooted in the stop motion adventure stories of the past and presaging a good deal of the modern interest in the weird west, but it doesn't spark too often. The highlight is certainly Harryhausen's animation, as everyone else takes a back seat the moment they have to share the screen with monsters. Unfortunately beyond the excellent initial concept, spawned from the Prof Challenger stories of Arthur Conan Doyle and filtered through the imagination of Willis O'Brien, it becomes derivative quickly. The back story with Tuck and T J is mild and poorly explored, the subplot with the gypsies is mostly ignored and Prof Bromley loses purpose quickly as his theory is shot. Pretty much everything else is ruthlessly stolen from the best stop motion movie of them all, King Kong. What's left is the dinosaurs, Harryhausen's last work with them. On that front this is always worth a watch, because even lesser Harryhausen is still Harryhausen.

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