01 September 2009

Let’s Rope Some Dinos in The Valley of Gwangi

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
Directed by Jim O’Connolly. Starring James Franciscus, Gila Golan, Richard Carlson, Laurence Nasmith, Freda Jackson, Gustavo Rojo, Curtis Arden.

I’ve loved the stop-motion movies of Ray Harryhausen from a tender age, but not until the last few weeks have I started to write reviews of them for public consumption. The first two I reviewed, The Three Worlds of Gulliver (for Black Gate) and The First Men in the Moon, both have much to recommend them, but they still end up disappointing because they don’t fully deliver on the stop-motion wonders that makes Ray Harryhausen’s work so recognizable and transporting.

But lack of stop-motion marvels isn’t a problem with The Valley of Gwangi, my topic for today. The problem with it is that it failed at the box office and ended up in obscurity until Warner Bros. finally unleashed it on home video in the 1990s. I can still remember reading those first reviews of the video release and wondering, “Where has this movie hidden all my life?”

Those years of obscurity were unfair, because The Valley of Gwangi is one of my favorite films from the team of Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer. It’s a huge sugary ball of all the things I love to see in a pulp adventure tale. In fact, the whole film seems like it was targeted directly toward me. Two of my favorite films genres are 1) the giant rampaging monster movie, and 2) the Western. Put them both together, and pow! I am a very happy camper. The film could be a cheap disaster and I’d still enjoy it. But The Valley of Gwangi makes the most out of its genre splicing. It’s a minor cinematic tragedy that one of the genres was losing popularity at the time of the film’s release, and that contributed to its box office extinction.

Two forces combined to make Gwangi possible. First was the enormous success of Hammer’s One Million Years B.C., which Harryhausen worked on as effects designer. The second force I’ll let Ray himself explain:
What became The Valley of Gwangi was not only a film about dinosaurs, it was also a tribute to my mentor, Willis O’Brien. Really it was his imaginative genius that brought it to the screen. It all began when I was searching through my ‘mortuary’ of old stories for a dinosaur project, and although there were a few ideas, none of them were good enough. However, my search did bring to mind an old O’Brien project he had talked about many years before: a variation on The Lost World story in which cowboys attempt to lasso a dinosaur. It was this fantastic image of lassoing a dinosaur that had implanted itself at the back of my mind.
O’Brien had come close to realizing the project at RKO in the early 1940s, but the studio yanked the funding—just one of many frustrations that the great effects pioneer suffered. Harryhausen recovered O’Brien’s script, which was then revised and updated by William Bast and Julian More. After Columbia declined the project because of its potential cost, Warner Bros.-Seven Arts picked it up. Unfortunately, studio politics would later have a negative effect on the film’s release.

The story begins on a “cold open” instead of launching into a title sequence—a first for a Schneer/Harryhausen film. In a rocky desert land (filmed in Spain, as were most of the Eurowesterns of the time), a dying gypsy stumbles down from the mountains gripping a bag with something squirming inside it. The man whispers one word to his brother Carlos (Gustavo Rojo) before he dies: “Gwangi.” Carlos takes away the bag despite the dreadful warnings of the blind woman Tia Zorina (Freda Jackson, who would also play a blind character in Clash of the Titans).

After titles displayed over Harryhausen’s sketches and accompanied by a rousing Aaron Copland-style number from composer Jerome Moross, we learn that we are “Somewhere south of the Rio Grande . . . around the turn of the century.” Which is the perfect place for a grinning huckster like Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) to ply his trade. Tuck has come to visit T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan), the owner of a Wild West show she inherited from her father. She’s also one of its attractions: her major act is riding Omar the Wonder Horse off a diving platform and into a pool. Harryhausen had to animate the horse-dive shot using a toy horse and rider, which looks a touch surreal, but at least it means No Animals Were Harmed During the Making of This Picture. Tuck was once romantically linked with T. J., but then he left her for his entrepreneurial pursuits. She’s not thrilled to see him come back—especially since he wants to buy Omar the Wonder horse for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

There’s an interesting subtext to these early scenes around the Mexican town and the rodeo show. The first act we see is a staging of Native Americans attacking covered wagons, which was typical of the Wild West shows that were trying to capture a frontier era that had already vanished. It seems that no “real adventure” exists anymore, only sad facsimiles like this, and even they aren’t drawing more than indifferent crowds. Tuck is an example of the “fake cowboy” who now strides through the tamed West, wearing a fancy version of cowboy gear and looking to make a centavo off people’s fascinating with the buried past. Of course, everyone will end up encountering real adventure with an even farther off and deeper buried past than they expected.

Franciscus is perfectly cast: blondely handsome, square-jawed, and sporting a smarmy grin that screams “don’t trust me!” Gila Golan opposite him is stunningly beautiful and sexy, but her voice is dubbed because the Polish-born Israeli actress had too strong an accent. It’s an obvious dub, too. Considering the mix of nationalities that crisscrossed the West, I don’t see any reason not to let T. J. have a Polish accent.

The other half of the story, the one with prehistoric mayhem, now makes an appearance in the shape of an absent-minded scientist character. English Professor Bromley (Laurence Nasmith, who also appears in Jason and the Argonauts) wanders from the desert on the trail of fossils of the eohippus, the “dawn horse,” a miniature ancestor of the modern equestrian.

We don’t have to wait long to actually see an eohippus, because it turns out that T. J. has one—given to her by Carlos, who works for the show. After she and Tuck have a sudden make-out make-up session in the bullring, she shows the strange animal to him. Tuck sees dollar signs, but Professor Bromley wants to know where this mini-marvel came from. Bromley then reveals the little horse’s location to the gypsies who think the animal’s removal from the Forbidden Valley will bring a curse down on them. Bromley waits to follow the gypsies back to the valley when they steal the horse.

The eohippus is the first major stop-motion creature to appear in the movie, and it’s interesting that it should be such a small, almost adorable animal. It’s a clever and charming scene when it first emerges from its toy house and into the tiny corral that T. J. built for it.
The gypsies steal the eohippus as Bromley planned, and the chase is set in motion that will bring all our main characters to the Forbidden Valley and plenty of dinosaur encounters.

Looking at the digital display on your DVD player will tell you that the heroes don’t reach the valley and the saurian action until about forty-five minutes into the film. This seems like a long ride on a slow mule to get to the core of the film, the very reason that you chose to watch it, and many viewers might feel this is too glacial an opening. Not me; I love Westerns too much to find anything about the pre-prehistoric happenings uninteresting. For me, the film just gets even better once the big beasties show up.

The cowboys ride into the Forbidden Valley to another rip-snorting version of Moross’s “Western Theme.” Then a Pterodactyl swoops down and picks up Lope (Curtis Arden), Tuck’s kid sidekick. The wires in the animation sometimes appear too obvious on the screen, but the actual shot of the flying creature snatching up Lope from the saddle occurs flawlessly. The creature can’t handle the kid’s weight and crashes, allowed Carlos to wrestle it and snap its neck; this requires use of a full-size model used on-location and it meshes well with the animation model. Harryhausen wasn’t pleased with the effect, but I think it comes across well.

The other cowboys locate an Ornithomimus (“a plucked ostrich!” one of the cowhands helpfully describes), and the running creature gives Harryhausen a chance to create the illusion of a moving camera stop-motion shot by using a scrolling rear-screen. But the Ornithomimus leads the men straight to a confrontation with the headliner . . . Gwangi!

Many sources refer to Gwangi as an Allosaurus, and that was what the dinosaur was termed in O’Brien’s original script. Gwangi is actually an invented carnosaur that Harryhausen terms a “Tyrannosaurus al,” combining aspects of Allosaurus and the famous T. Rex. Gwangi is definitely a Tyrannosauridae of some kind. It’s a wonderful beast, executed through a detailed 12” model and given immense personality through Harryhausen’s animation.

Gwangi attacks the cowboys in their camp in a cave (a scene that will definitely influence the original Land of the Lost TV show) which leads into the film’s signature scene, the special-effects sequence that originally intrigued Harryhausen into wanting to do the project: Gwangi ropin’ time!
If The Valley of Gwangi were as well known as films like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, the roping scene would be spoken about in the same tones of awe as the “Skeleton army fight” or the “Medusa scene”; it’s one of the artist’s masterpieces and required five and a half months of work to complete. Tuck, Carlos, and show manager Champ (Richard Carlson) try to throw ropes around Gwangi to subdue it, and almost succeed. The mix of the live-action horsemen and their ropes with the model of Gwangi looks seamless. A CGI version of this couldn’t be any more exciting.

But before the cowboys can try to hog-tie the “Tyrannosaurus al” (which would be a heckuva feat), Gwangi snaps free so it can tussle with its natural enemy, a Styracosaurus. In most dinosaur films, a Tyrannosauridae vs. Ceratopsian tussle would be the highlight, but not after the roping scene. Gwangi kills the horned foe, and stops long enough the chomp down on Carlos, thus making T. J.’s life a bit less complicated. Gwangi chases the fleeing cowboys, and when trying to wedge itself out of the valley through a cleft, causes a landslide and knocks itself into dreamland.

The only major effects gaffe occurs here. Harryhausen simply ran out of time, and instead of animating Gwangi’s collapse, he had to shoot an immobile Gwangi figurine. It jars with all the other footage of the creature, but the animator had little choice. In Harryhausen’s own words: “It looks awful. As the budget didn’t allow us to build a bigger Gwangi model and photographing it at high speed, I had to settle on a non-armatured, hard rubber model.”

T. J. and company now escort Gwangi back to civilization à la King Kong, although I don’t believe that cart and rope contraption built to hold the carnivore would stop it for more than five seconds. However, the heroes had to get Gwangi back somehow. Even the 1933 King Kong didn’t show how Carl Denham got the big ape to the Big Apple.

T. J. and Tuck share some brief conflict—it seem they’ve switched positions about making bank off of prehistoric animals—but they make up in the next scene, just in time for the Lost World / King Kong / Gorgo / Lost World: Jurassic Park playbook to start up: Gwangi breaks free during his unveiling at the rodeo. After killing an elephant (a stop-motion creature, which looks a bit odd because elephants are real living animals, but this was a last-minute fix after plans for using an actual elephant fell through) Gwangi runs amok in the town and eventually thrashes into a great cathedral for the finale.
The scenes inside the cathedral are the moodiest in the film, even though not at the same level of accomplishment as the roping sequence. The idea of a carnivorous dinosaur stalking victims through a giant Gothic church is a thrilling one. The beast’s fiery demise is the sort of imagery that medieval artists would have sacrificed their souls to illustrate. The word “THE END” appear over the collapsing church, but I would wager that the size of the flames indicate that the whole town is going to burn away. And T. J. and Tuck’s plans are pretty much up in smoke as well.

The Valley of Gwangi should have hit big when it came out; it is imaginative and exciting, and I’m certainly not the only one who would have thought that. However, the film flopped for two reasons, neither having anything to do with its quality.

First, the movie was victimized by the infamous “Studio Buy-Out” that has killed the premieres of many films over decades. The Kinney Corporation purchased Warner Bros. from Seven Arts right after the movie’s completion; whenever new owners come in on a studio, they treat all the current films on the schedule as warehouse overstock to get cheaply auctioned off. The new owners forced the title The Valley of Gwangi, a pretty nonsensical one, over Harryhausen’s and Schneer’s preferred choice of The Valley Where Time Stood Still. Then the studio dumped it with almost no marketing support into theaters on double-bills with awful B-movies. The Valley of Gwangi wasn’t the only Western to get knee-capped by the Kinney buy-out: the excellent The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a very personal Sam Peckinpah film, also got dumped with little notice into theaters.

The other reason for Gwangi failing to find its audience in 1969 was the general condition of the Western genre. The U.S. market was over-saturated with Westerns in the early ‘60s, when they flooded the TV airwaves. The Western bubble of the late-‘50s burst, and the U.S. product saw a marked decline in popularity, especially among the youngsters who once idolized it. The Italian and Eurowestern helped revitalize the genre with new ideas, at least into the ‘70s, but The Valley of Gwangi looked enough like a traditional “cowboy film” so that even with dinosaurs it must have seemed a bit quaint.

Today, The Valley of Gwangi seems cutting-edge in its retro-feel and genre-blending, making it an important “Weird Western.” It also influenced countless special-effects people and paleontologists. There are still audiences who will dismiss it as silly nonsense, but this is a special film for fantasy-, dinosaur-, and Western-lovers. I’m all three.

And even the film’s failure on its initial release had a positive effect: Harryhausen and Schneer re-grouped and came back six years later with possibly their greatest film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.