Our story begins at the turn of the 20th century down in Mexico, where the camera ominously sweeps along some desolate rock formations and canyon walls that are determined to keep their secrets hidden at all costs. And as a case in point, we soon spy a band of gypsies -- a search party, actually, scouring these rocks for a stray, who dared probe beyond these natural barriers.
Led by Carlos, the missing man’s brother, they soon find him, stumbling around, torn to pieces and half-dead, with a cloth sack clutched in his hand, whose contents are very much alive and kicking and desperately wants to be let loose.
As the others catch up to him, the injured man collapses and finally succumbs to his terrible wounds. Here, Carlos (Rojo) pries the sack away from the dead man; it’s unknown contents about the size of a feral cat (-- but if that thing is a cat, this feline sure does think it's a horse judging by the noises it’s making. Weird).
Fearful of an old prophecy that promises a horrible death to those who try to steal anything from the ruler of this forbidden valley, Zorina (Jackson), the clan’s withered old matriarch, orders Carlos to release the animal immediately. But Carlos doesn’t put much stock in ancient curses and refuses, despite the warning his brother gave him with his dying breath -- just one word: Gwangi.
Cut to sometime later, where we spy a broken down circus and stunt-show that’s barely eking out a living as it tours the small villages south of the Rio Grande.
Enter Tuck Kirby (Franciscus), a former rider and stuntman for this outfit, who now buys acts for Buffalo Bill Cody’s more renown and successful Wild West Show. There to purchase Omar the Wonder Horse, this derelict operation’s only real attraction, whose act is being ridden up a series of ramps and then diving off a high platform into a blazing pool of water.
But after taking in this grand finale amongst the sparse crowd, Tuck’s sales pitch runs right into a brick wall in the form of Miss T.J. Breckenridge (Golan) -- the show's owner, Omar's rider, and Tuck's former flame that he ran out on a few years back, who refuses to sell and orders her foreman, Champ Connors (Carlson), to escort this lout off the premises immediately.
As a scalded Tuck limps back into town with his new best friend, a young street hustler and opportunist named Lope (Arden), they encounter Professor Horace Bromley, currently traveling on foot due to some of Lope’s shenanigans and a mule that wasn’t quite as saddle-broke as the boy had claimed when he sold it to him.
After giving the old man a ride to his encampment, Bromley (Naismith) explains that he is a paleontologist out on a fossil hunt, and is currently looking for corroborative evidence on a fossil he recently unearthed, whose implications could rewrite history as we now know it!
Showing this discovery off to Tuck, Bromley points out the fossilized humanoid leg bone embedded in the rock and the curious three-toed mini-footprints surrounding it, claiming they belong to the Eohippus -- the Dawn Horse, the great-great-great grandfather of modern equines, whose species went extinct millions of years before man walked the Earth. Or so we all thought -- if Bromley can prove it. Tuck wishes him luck.
Next, after giving her a sufficient cooling-off period -- and I’m thinking days and not hours, Tuck returns to the arena, where TJ and Carlos, who apparently works for her now, are currently watching a bullfighter audition for the show. But all of Tuck’s attempts at ingratiation goes nowhere until Lope foolishly climbs into the ring and draws the attention of an enraged bull.
Both Tuck and Carlos jump in to save the boy; and while Carlos does most of the work keeping the bull at bay, it’s Tuck to whom TJ runs to first when it’s all over. And after patching him up, turns out there’s still the teensiest bit of a romantic spark between these two. And as Tuck fans these rekindled flames, TJ finally reveals why she can’t sell Omar.
Turns out Omar is an integral part of the show’s new main attraction: El Diablo, the World's Tiniest Horse, which she then unveils to Tuck. And when the little horse-like creature trots out of its miniature stable, Tuck is at a loss for words as he gets an earful from TJ, who can’t help but gloat over her new guaranteed money-maker with El Diablo prancing around on a platform strapped to the back of Omar.
Noting El Diablo’s tiny, three-toed hooves, Tuck asks where did she ever find such a thing? But TJ isn’t sure, saying it was a gift from Carlos -- solving the mystery of what was in that bag. Intended as a sign of affection, Carlos is none too happy that Tuck has now come back, driving a wedge between them, and refuses to divulge anything.
Remembering Bromley’s fossil find, and thinking TJ has no idea of the true goldmine she may have here, Tuck sneaks the paleontologist in for a peek at El Diablo in hopes he can identify it. Saying the animal appears to be a bona fide Eohippus, Bromley, of course, is shocked to see something alive and well that was supposed to have died out 49-million years ago -- give or take a million years.
Wanting to know if there are any more unique specimens out there, with Lope’s help, the two men circumnavigate Carlos and seek out those gypsies. But after talking with the belligerent Zorina, who not only says they won’t show them where the Forbidden Valley is located, but they will also stop at nothing to return the little creature from whence it came. That’s enough for Tuck, who wants to protect TJ’s investment. But Bromley lingers behind and conspires with Zorina, telling her where the little horse is being hidden for his own mercenary purposes.
When Tuck sniffs out Bromley’s deception through Lope, he tries to put a stop to it. But he’s already too late as the gypsies have knocked-out Carlos and absconded with El Diablo -- all part of Bromley’s plan, as he intends to follow them and learn the location of the Forbidden Valley, where he will find more specimens and the co-conspirators will free the animal and nullify the curse.
Carlos revives just in time to see Tuck ride off in pursuit of the gypsies, only he tells TJ and Champ that it was Tuck who stole El Diablo. Rounding up two more hands, Rowdy and Bean (Kilbane, De Barros), a royally pissed off TJ leads her posse into the desert in pursuit of that no-good horse thief.
Now, all of these interested parties -- Tuck, Bromley and Lope, TJ and her posse, all collide just as the freed El Diablo makes his way back into the isolated Forbidden Valley through a small fissure. They all make peace when Lope rats out Bromley, saying this was all his idea and not Tuck’s.
And with a little work, they are able to widen the fissure just enough to get them and the horses through to the other side and into the lost valley that time forgot proper.
And while they don’t find El Diablo, the group is attacked by a winged Pteranodon that snatches Lope off his mule. But the boy proves too heavy and Carlos is able to bulldog the flying dinosaur to the ground as it struggles to get away, eventually breaking its neck -- much to Bromley’s horror.
But he doesn’t mourn this loss for long as another prized specimen presents itself, which he identifies as an Ornithomimus. And as the others wind-up their lassos to go and catch this giant “plucked ostrich” for the show, it flees deeper into the valley.
Now, this somewhat whimsical pursuit continues until it comes to an abrupt halt when another dinosaur lunges from out of nowhere -- an Allosaurus, who seizes the smaller dinosaur within its deadly jaws, crushing and killing it.
Carlos takes one look at this creature and knows this big lizard is Gwangi, the evil one he was warned about, who rules this valley; and they are all in some serious doo-doo as Gwangi sees them, too, and the hunters officially become the hunted...
It's somewhat ironic that it was Hammer Studios who got master stop-motion animator Ray Harryhausen back in the dinosaur business.
For it was this same studio's Gothic horror revival with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Horror of Dracula (1958) that officially sounded the death-knell on the resurgent sci-fi boom of the 1950s, which essentially began with the huge financial success of the revived prehistoric monster gone amok in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and effectively brought an end to all those giant monster movies that Harryhausen, who had brought that Beast to life, and his partner, producer Charles Schneer, had been making together at Columbia since It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), which they followed up with Earth vs the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957).
And after a string of fantasy pictures based on the myths and legends of old -- book-ended by The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Hammer hired Harryhausen as a freelancer to work some of his Dynamation magic on One Million Years B.C. (1966) -- a loose remake of Hal Roach’s One Million B.C. (1940), whose combination of dinosaur action and 40-pounds of Raquel Welch strapped into a 20-pound fur-lined bikini would prove to be a box-office bonanza for Hammer and 20th Century Fox.
Thus and so, with dinosaurs suddenly back in vogue, wanting to strike while things were hot, Harryhausen and Schneer decided their next collaboration should also involve these prehistoric beasties. In fact, they kinda wanted to double-down and kicked around the idea of time-displacing Sinbad -- their other big money-maker, and having him come into conflict with some dinosaurs; but this notion didn’t get much further than a few conceptual sketches. Thus, for their next feature, Harryhausen wound up digging into his own prehistory to give them a suitable vehicle for what they needed.
As the legend goes, Ray Harryhausen fell in love with the stop-motion animated process when he first encountered King Kong (1933) during its initial theatrical release at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Los Angeles, and soon became obsessed with the technique and the craftsman credited with bringing all those monsters to life, Willis O’Brien.
Devouring everything he could on the subject matter and combining it with another obsession -- the artwork of Charles Knight, who fleshed-out those dinosaur fossils on paper in several dramatic scenes of life in prehistoric times, Harryhuasen started making his own models and animated them on film.
He was finally able to meet O’Brien in person in 1939 through the efforts of a mutual friend, when a phone call ended with an invitation for the young Harryhausen to bring some of his models over to MGM Studios, where O’Brien was currently in the pre-production phase of War Eagles; a wild epic conceived by Merian C. Cooper as a follow-up to King Kong, where a lost race of Viking warriors, who rode giant prehistoric eagles, is discovered in Antarctica, who wind up battling a bunch of surrogate Nazi dirigibles over the skies of Manhattan during the film’s climax.
Here, Harryhausen gaped in wonder at the large storyboard illustrations by Duncan Gleason and the animation models created by Marcel Delgado and George Lofgren, who had also worked on Kong. Somewhat embarrassed, he presented one of his own models to O’Brien, who did not sugarcoat his critique. But he was more encouraging than disparaging, telling Harryhausen to study anatomy and physiology to give his skeletal structures and musculature more accuracy -- and most importantly of all, to infuse character into these models and not just move them around.
Alas, an escalating budget, studio politics, and the growing threat of war soon found the plug pulled on War Eagles, which was too bad because everything uncovered about that production shows it really would’ve been something else on the big screen.
O’Brien always had the damndest of bad luck post-King Kong, where he was hired on to supply the special-effects for at least a half-dozen features before they all suddenly dried up right before a single frame of film was shot. Harryhausen remained in contact with O’Brien over these difficult years and mounting disappointments as he took his advice to heart and honed his craft, and their families became close friends.
Right before he went into the Army, where he served under Frank Capra in the film unit of the Special Service Division for the duration of World War II, Harryhausen visited O’Brien at RKO, where yet another one of those doomed features was well into pre-production. The proposed film this time was called Gwangi -- a Native American term for big lizard, where a group of rodeo cowboys venture into a hidden valley.
And after discovering it's inhabited by dinosaurs, in perhaps the wildest round-up scene ever conceived, they try to rope and capture an Allosaurus. Again, there were extensive production sketches, miniatures and models built for the production only to be abandoned indefinitely, once again, due to budget concerns.
However, parts of Gwangi still managed to survive when several of its set-pieces were later incorporated into Mighty Joe Young (1948), including the team-roping sequence and a climactic battle between the big gorilla and several lions.
O’Brien had hired Harryhausen to be the animation supervisor on the picture. And while O’Brien would later accept an Academy Award for the special-effects rendered in the film, it was clear the uncredited student had now become the master when it came to bringing these models to life on screen.
Now, it was during the production of Mighty Joe Young when Harryhausen and his mentor got to talking about the failed Gwangi project. Here, O’Brien gave him a copy of the unused script and a series of leftover storyboards. And it was these very same items Harryhausen dug out of his garage and dusted off in 1966, which he then presented to Schneer, who agreed to revive the picture as their next production -- The Valley Where Time Stood Still.
And while Harryhausen set to work on a series of eight principle drawings for the Dyna-Magic set-pieces, the old script was turned over to William Bast for a little punching up, who shifted the action from modern times to the early 1900s.
Meantime, Schneer was trying to secure financing for the production when Columbia turned them down over cost considerations and the box-office disappointments of the last few features they did for them. But Harryhausen got to know Kenneth Hyman while working for Hammer, which gave them an in with Hyman’s father, Eliot Hyman, whose Seven Arts Productions had just completed a semi-hostile takeover of Warner Bros, turning them into Warner Bros -Seven Arts. And seeing how much money Fox had made with One Million Years B.C. Hyman readily agreed to finance the film on one condition -- a title change to The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
In an effort to save money, the film was shot in Spain, taking advantage of the other-worldly rock formations of the Ciudad Encantada located just outside the city of Cuenca, which subbed in beautifully for the environs of the Forbidden Valley. And once principle photography wrapped, Harryhausen returned to England and Shepperton Studios in October, 1967, where he had done the stop-motion effects for One Million Years B.C., where it took nearly a whole year to complete the over 400 stop-motion cuts in what was to become his most ambitious work to date. The film’s showcase centerpiece -- his take on that wildest round-up in screen history, took over five months to complete all on its own, which I think rivals or even betters the climactic skeleton brawl at the end of Jason and the Argonauts.
A bold claim, given that we haven’t seen a whole lot yet as far as Dynamation goes in The Valley of Gwangi so far; but, oh, Boils and Ghouls, hang on to your collective butts as our cowboys flee from the pursuing Allosaurus, only to wind up being caught between Gwangi and a cranky Styracosaurus.
When their rifles prove useless -- later discovered to be filled with the harmless stage blanks they use during their wild west stunt-spectacular, they find refuge in a cave while the dinosaurs withdraw after a brief Mexican stand-off and go their separate ways.
Then, after a long night, where Tuck and TJ agree to leave all of this nonsense behind and make another go of it together -- if they manage to get out of there alive, when the sun comes up Tuck goes off in search of some water to refill their depleted canteens.
But while he fills them up in a nearby stream, his horse starts to panic when Gwangi once more lumbers into view -- where we see some of that infusion of character, when the dinosaur angrily scratches at an annoying itch on his nose, which was also a nod to O’Brien for a similar gag pulled by the T-Rex in King Kong.
Pursued all the way back to the cave, when spears and torches prove ineffective in driving the creature off, the gathered cowboys resort to the only weapons they have left -- their lassos.
Now, I’m not even going to try to do this scene justice in typed words and just encourage you all to watch it as soon as possible. And here’s some vid-caps to give you some idea as to what actually transpired.
And here's a few more.
Aaaaaaand a few more.
And when this rousing sequence reaches a fever pitch, to their credit and skills, these cowboys almost have Gwangi strung out, trussed up, and captured before that Styracosaurus comes back and interrupts this rodeo, dividing the attention of his attackers, giving the other dinosaur the distraction it needed to chew through the ropes and break free.
And as these two great beasts lock in combat once more, Tuck and the others make a break for the valley entrance. But Gwangi makes quick work of the horned dinosaur, who had been gravely wounded when it was speared in the ribs by Carlos, and roars after them.
And while the others make it out, that curse comes back to bite Carlos in the ass, who was bringing up the rear, as Gwangi catches up, chomps the man right off his horse, and then gruesomely turns him into an appetizer!
Not satisfied, in his attempt to get at the main course, Gwangi tries to follow them out of the valley, but that fissure wasn’t quite big enough and he gets stuck; and when his violent struggle eventually causes the entrance to collapse, the dinosaur is knocked-out cold.
With the monster subdued, he's muzzled, caged-up, and hauled back to civilization as the new main attraction for TJ’s show, who seems to have chucked all those plans and promises she made with Tuck the night before.
Blinded by the pursuit of fortune and glory, she’s disappointed that Tuck will not be sticking around after the big unveiling. But never fear, true believers, she changes her mind before it's too late -- which is a lot sooner than you'd think!
Because, unbeknownst to them, those gypsies have sabotaged Gwangi’s cage so he may punish those who tried to imprison him. This backfires on the culprits just a bit when the curtain rises for the big reveal, where the audience gets to see the saboteur get eaten alive.
And in the resulting panic, when Gwangi breaks loose, Zorina gets trampled to death by the panicked mob as they flee the stadium.
And after dispatching an elephant (-- and I’m really starting to suspect that Harryhausen had something against pachyderms since he killed another one in 20 Million Miles to Earth), Gwangi’s rampage continues unabated as he breaks out of the arena and starts munching on the fleeing spectators.
In the ensuing chaos, Tuck, TJ and Lope manage to find each other and try to seek refuge in a large cathedral; but Gwangi knocks down the door before they can get it properly secured.
And as he pursues them deeper into this massive church, the dinosaur knocks over several burning braziers, which soon sets everything ablaze.
And as this fire turns into a raging inferno, Tuck and the others manage to escape but Gwangi remains trapped inside, where he is eventually crushed to death as the burning building collapses on top of him.
You know, to me, there's a huge difference when categorizing what you feel is the best film as opposed to what your favorite film is. And to those ends, while I can honestly say I think Jason and the Argonauts is probably Harryhausen's best film, The Valley of Gwangi will always be my favorite.
Gwangi is also his second best film in my opinion, and Argonauts is my second favorite. And strangely enough, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers appears third on both lists -- even though Harryhausen claims that was his worst. Weird.
Now, I freely admit I am in a small but very vocal minority when it comes to trumpeting the merits of this film. And I think a lot of that has to do with The Valley of Gwangi’s hokey premise and relative obscurity due to a disastrous theatrical release.
See, when the film was finally finished it had taken so long there had been yet another regime change at Warners in the interim. And the new studio brass had no interest in what the old regime was responsible for and the film kinda got lost in the shuffle until it was eventually banished to the bottom half of some very mismatched double-bills with little fanfare or publicity, where it ran with the adult-oriented Girl on a Motorcycle (1968) or the imported comedy crime caper, The Seven Golden Men (1969), where it completely missed its target audience. But if it was lucky, like when it played in my neck of the woods, it was at least paired-up with another -- albeit more traditional, western, The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969).
But no matter what it got paired up with, The Valley of Gwangi had no studio support and quickly disappeared from circulation and was never re-issued like some of Harryhausen’s earlier films. It also failed to show up on home video until the 1990s and that’s why for the longest time this was considered Harryhausen's forgotten film, or at best least known, and that's too bad because you all are missing one heck of a movie.
As with all Schneer and Harryhausen films, one of The Valley of Gwangi's main perks is that it doesn't fall into a familiar B-movie trap. For even though Harryhausen's creatures are the showpieces and the main reason to watch, these films are seldom boring in-between those FX shots as the stories surrounding them are solid, competently directed, acted and executed -- although I understand there were some prickly creative differences between Schneer and director James O'Connolly on this one. On screen, everything looks just great and the compositions of cinematographer, Erwin Hillier, add a lot and keeps things interesting to look at between dino-brawls.
My bro’crush on 1970s über-stud James Franciscus has already been well established and this was only solidified more here. Gila Golan was a former “Maiden of Beauty” winner in her adopted homeland of Israel. She continued modeling and received a film contract at Columbia in 1964 -- even though most of her roles were later re-dubbed due to her accent. The blustery Laurence Naismith was a regular on these later Schneer and Harryhausen films, and it’s always fun to see genre vet Richard Carlson running around in one of these things.
Another big plus in most of these Dynamation productions was the music, whose impact is undeniable and is what usually glued everything together -- Mischa Bakaleinikoff bringing the mystery and thunder and weight in those early sci-fi epics, Bernard Herrmann painting an ear-scape of awe and wonder and danger in those fantasy yarns, and now Jerome Morross, whose spirited strings and horn-heavy score of wide open spaces and percussive daring do rivals his work on The Big Country (1958). (You can give a listen here.)
The model for Gwangi itself was about 12-inches high. “The roping sequence was the main reason I wanted to make the picture,” said Harryhausen in his autobiography, An Animated Life. “Actors and horses had to be coordinated to be at a certain point at a precise time to ensure that I could animate the model to fit with their actions. The eye-line had to be spot on all the time they were riding, and to make it all work I had to use several old tricks and a few new ones."
To accomplish this, Harryhausen used what he called a ‘Monster Stick’ to give his actors something to look at during filming. For the rodeo sequence, it was mounted on the back of a jeep that was later taken out during the matting process and replaced with the model dinosaur and their ropes replaced with copper wiring.
Unfortunately, even though he had a whole year for post-production, Harryhausen was still pressed for time with a release date looming, leading to a few short-cuts where certain miniature scenes were not lit properly, explaining why Gwangi and several other dinosaurs appear to change colors throughout the film -- though this was later digitally corrected in later releases on DVD and Blu-Ray. Also, be careful not to dig too deep when looking for background information on your favorite movies because I regret finding out that Gwangi’s distinctive roar was a belching camel run through a filter; and now whenever Gwangi roars all I hear is a damned camel chewing its cud.
On top of the box-office failure, one of Harryhausen's biggest regrets about The Valley of Gwangi was Willis O'Brien would not get proper screen credit for his contributions due to some union hassles. O'Brien did eventually oversee the FX for the similarly themed Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956), where a spat of cattle-rustling turns out to be a forked-tongue Allosaurus, and The Black Scorpion (1957) -- a troubled production, where due to budgetary reasons several attack scenes weren’t animated at all and the producers just went with the footage where the monster hadn’t been matted in yet, and The Giant Behemoth (1959), which was kind of a more sober remake of Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.
O’Brien was also initially involved with producer John Beck on a co-production with Toho Studios that eventually saw the light of day as King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) -- a production O’Brien would later disavow.
Somewhat tragically, with the box-office failure of both The Valley of Gwangi and Hammer’s follow up to One Million Years B.C., When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), producers were starting to realize that maybe it was the buxom babes in the fur-bikinis that were the box-office draw and not the dinosaurs. And so, in follow-up features like Creatures the World Forgot (1971) and When Women Had Tails (1973), they kept in the scantily clad women but eschewed the time and expense of any stop-motion dinosaurs for in-camera creatures and stuntmen in sad bear suits. Thus and so, animated dinosaurs would once more become extinct, cinematically speaking, until, for better or for worse, Jurassic Park (1993) brought them back digitally for good.
But thanks to home video and streaming, audiences were finally catching up with The Valley of Gwangi -- though I am continually baffled as to why all those DVD and Blu releases use that alternative art when you have that kick-ass Frank McCarthy painting from one of thee greatest film posters of all time. I loved it so much, I went out and bought one and had it framed.
Again, I know most people think the climactic skeleton battle in Jason and the Argonauts or the Medusa on the hunt in Clash of the Titans (1981) is Harryhausen's masterpiece and the epitome of his craft but, I’m sorry, I gotta go with the team roping of Gwangi. The combination of six actors, six horses, and six ropes is absolutely ah-mazing to watch, and one can only boggle when told the man seldom used calibration tools and did all the movements by memory!
What is it about Harryhausen’s films that compel us to break out the Playdough and make some dinosaurs of our own? But was Gwangi a real dinosaur to begin with? According to the script it was supposed to be an Allosaurus, but his creator often claims it was more of a T-Rex -- or a strange combination of both, which he often referred to as a Tyrannosaurus-Al.
Regardless, whatever species it was, watch and marvel as the animated creature interacts and pulls things away from the live actors, or snatches them off moving horses, and then ponder, just like the rest of us, How in the hell does he do that?!
Well, if you don't know what Hubrisween is by now, Boils and Ghouls, I don't think I can help you. Anyhoo, that's 22 films down with just FOUR yet to go. Up next, The Werewolves of Sturgis.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969) Morningside Productions :: Warner Brothers/Seven Arts / P: Charles H. Schneer / AP: Ray Harryhausen / D: James O'Connolly / W: William Bast / C: Erwin Hillier / E: Henry Richardson / M: Jerome Moross / S: James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson, Laurence Naismith, Gustavo Rojo, Freda Jackson, Dennis Kilbane, Mario De Barros, Curtis Arden