Directed By: Jim O'Connolly
Starring: James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson
Tag line: "Cowboys Battle Monsters in the Lost World of Forbidden Valley"
Trivia: The sound that Gwangi makes is that of a camel and a raspberry run backwards
While not as well-known as Jason and the Argonauts or the Sinbad series of films, 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi marks another impressive outing for special effects guru, Ray Harryhausen, who once again shows why his particular brand of animation is second to none.
The setting is somewhere in Mexico, right around the turn of the 20th century. Horse trader Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) has just rolled into town to visit his former girlfriend, T.J. (Gina Golan), owner of a struggling Wild West show. Yet T.J. thinks she’s stumbled on something that will pack the audiences in: a miniature horse, standing about a foot tall! Turns out the little fella, which goes by the name El Diablo, came from a valley the locals believe is cursed. When El Diablo is kidnapped by a Gypsy woman (Freda Jackson) and released back into the wild, Tuck, T.J., and several others ride into the valley to retrieve him. As they’ll soon discover, El Diablo is but one of many amazing creatures to be found in this unexplored corner of the world.
The Valley of Gwangi opens with a few acts from T.J.’s Wild West show, including one where T.J. herself rides a horse up several flights of stairs, then leaps off a platform (while still on horseback) into a pool of water. These early scenes are a good bit of fun, and a nice set-up for the even greater spectacle to come, which, of course, means the remarkable stop-motion work of Ray Harryhausen.
The first “creature” he conjures up for The Valley of Gwangi is the miniature horse, El Diablo, a bizarre equine he infuses with a whole lot of personality. Then, once the action switches to the Valley, we witness an attack by, of all things, a pterodactyl, which grabs a young boy named Lope (Curtis Arden) and flies off with him. Unfortunately for the pterodactyl, Lope is much heavier than he anticipated, causing the huge dinosaur to come crashing to the ground. Needless to say, this monster isn’t something you’d expect to find in the old West. Nor, for that matter, is Gwangi himself, a T-Rex who turns up a few minutes after the pterodactyl. It’s at this exact moment that The Valley of Gwangi changes from an amusing Western into an extraordinary fantasy.
A rousing adventure that also tells an awesome story, The Valley of Gwangi is a very good film in its own right. Toss in Ray Harryhausen’s unique talents, and all at once, what was a “good” movie becomes a nearly great one. After all, it isn’t every day you see cowboys fighting dinosaurs!