The Valley of Gwangi (1969) ***
Ah, yes... The Valley of Gwangi, in which Ray Harryhausen’s cooler-than-real stop-motion special effects present us with the mind-boggling spectacle of cowboys battling dinosaurs. Yeah, you read that right-- cowboys vs. dinosaurs! This is a pretty stupid movie when you get right down to it, but it’s difficult to argue with something as endearingly bizarre as that.
The film is set in turn-of-the-20th-century Mexico, and opens with a band of Gypsies (are there any Gypsies in Mexico?) pursuing one of their number through the desert. The chase has clearly taken a lot out of the fugitive, because he is in the process of passing out in a mud-hole when we first see him. In his right hand is a burlap sack a little bigger than a man’s head, which appears to contain some sort of animal. The bag squirms continuously in his grip, while whatever is inside makes noises that sound, oddly enough, like the whinnying of a horse. As you might imagine, passing out in a mud-hole makes it rather more difficult for the fleeing man to elude his pursuers, who confiscate the sack immediately. A fantastically ugly old blind woman (Freda Jackson, from The Brides of Dracula and Die, Monster, Die!) says something ominous about how the contents of the sack must be returned to the “Valley of the Evil One” if the band is to escape a dreadful curse, and then the opening credits roll.
Then, the movie shifts gears to present us with a performance of Miss T. J. Breckinridge’s traveling cowboy circus. Mainly, the act consists of a series of mock cowboys-and-Indians running gun battles, with a jarringly incongruous grand finale in which Breckinridge (Gila Golan, wearing what would have been a scandalously revealing costume in 1900) dives off a 15-foot platform into a tank of water while riding Omar the Wonder Horse. In attendance at the performance is a man named Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus, from Marooned and Beneath the Planet of the Apes), who turns out to have been an ex-lover of T. J.’s. He has tracked T. J. down because he hopes to buy Omar the Wonder Horse from her-- the implication is that Tuck’s latest get-rich-quick scheme didn’t pan out exactly as he’d planned. T. J. thinks that’s a pretty shitty reason to come talk to your ex, and tells Tuck to get lost.
The next day, Tuck encounters an English paleontologist by the name of Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith, from Village of the Damned and Eye of the Cat) out in the desert (the two men are introduced by a boy named Lope [Curtis Arden], who does odd jobs for both of them). The scientist is looking for evidence to support a conclusion suggested by a certain remarkable fossil he discovered in the area. The fossil in question consists of a hominid tibia in close association with unmistakable Eohippus tracks. (Eohippus, or “Dawn Horse,” was an early horse, about the size of a terrier, whose feet had not yet been reduced to the hoofs with which we are familiar from modern horses. Its front feet had three toes each, while its hind feet had four. The hoof of the modern horse is structurally analogous to the middle toe of Eohippus, as can be seen from the presence of pairs of vestigial bone splints flanking the metacarpals and metatarsals of present-day horses.) This is a significant find in that (at least according to the paleontology of The Valley of Gwangi) humans are believed to have made their first appearance about a million years ago, while Eohippus dates from about 50 million years past. It is the doctor’s hypothesis that he has stumbled upon a hitherto-unknown, super-ancient hominid species. Actually, it turns out he’s got it backwards.
Now, you may remember the tiny, whinnying animal from the fugitive Gypsy’s bag about three scenes back. Yeah, you got it-- there was an Eohippus in that bag. And as it happens, one of the Gypsies (his name is Carlos, and he’s played by The Secret of Dr. Mabuse’s Gustavo Rojo) works for T. J. Breckinridge’s circus, and he got it in his head that what the circus really needs is something truly spectacular, like an Eohippus that has been trained to dance on a special, platform-like saddle to be worn by Omar the Wonder Horse. Hey, it beats watching a bunch of guys play cowboys and Indians. T. J. had got the prehistoric horse (which she thinks is merely a freak of nature) just about trained by the time Tuck showed up to complicate things, and from the moment she decides to let her ex-boyfriend in on the secret (which he promptly blabs to his new scientist buddy), it’s fairly obvious that Tuck’s money-grubbing, T. J.’s publicity-seeking, and the paleontologist’s glory-mongering are on a three-way collision course. Everybody wants to get (or keep) their hands on Diablo the Eohippus (including, by the way, those Gypsies, who would rather not be cursed), and it doesn’t take long before the doctor tells the Gypsies where the horse is, the Gypsies steal the horse, T. J.’s colleagues suspect Tuck of the theft, and everybody goes chasing each other into the desert.
It also doesn’t take long before the chase leads all concerned to the Forbidden Valley of Gwangi the Evil One, which turns out to be one of those ever-popular Lands that Time Forgot, isolated from the outside world by a ring of impassible mountains. There is, however, a tiny crack, just large enough for a man on horseback to squeeze through, allowing access to the valley’s interior. And squeeze they do, every one of the major characters, in pursuit of the now-loose Diablo, who helpfully leads them to the crack. The dinosaurs begin showing up almost immediately. First, a Pteranodon tries to fly off with Lope. Then, some long-necked biped (an Ornithomimus? An Ovoraptor?) appears, just long enough to get itself eaten by an Allosaurus (Gwangi, naturally). Finally, the scientist finds himself menaced by a Styracosaurus, which Gwangi will obviously have to fight before this movie winds itself up.
Of course, nearly everybody in this movie is a self-interested showman of some form or other, so it comes as no surprise when everybody forgets all about Diablo, and begins thinking in terms of figuring out how to capture Gwangi. This, I think, brings us to another of those important Bad Movie Lessons, comparable to “Never trust a person whose name is an anagram of ‘Dracula’” and “Stay away from lighthouses when there is a huge amphibious monster on the loose”: The capture and exhibition of huge carnivorous monsters is not a viable get-rich-quick scheme. But just as nobody ever learns not to check to see if the killer is really dead, the idea that Monsters + Civilization = Rampage just never seems to sink in. I don’t think I need to tell you much more about what’s coming, apart from the fact that the last-days-of-the-Old-West setting makes for a neat reinterpretation of the usual formula. Let’s face it-- none of these people is going to invent the Oxygen Destroyer.
In summation, The Valley of Gwangi is an entertaining little exercise in genre-juggling. We’ve got the setting and major characters of a Western, the structure of a Lost World movie, an ending straight out of a 1950’s monster-rampage flick, and even a bunch of sinister Gypsies like you’d expect to see in an old werewolf or vampire film. The script is a bit silly, but it’s the sort of silliness that you laugh with rather than at, and the solid, if unexceptional, performances from the cast make it go down easy. Then, of course, there are Harryhausen’s effects. No, they’re not realistic, but they have a charm that is conspicuously absent from today’s big-ticket CGI blow-outs. Don’t be so fucking jaded-- check this flick out.