The Valley of Gwangi

Last month, Robert E. Vardeman mentioned that he’s a fan of the Ray Harryhausen film The Valley of Gwangi in a post on his Patreon site. A couple of weeks later, when I was on a panel discussing Weird Westerns with Jeff Mariotte at the virtual CoKoCon, the film came up again. Although I had been aware of the film and had seen clips, I’d never watched the whole thing before, so I took this as a sign that I should finally sit down and watch it.

Cowboys and dinosaurs meet in The Valley of Gwangi

The film starts off looking like it’ll be a pretty ordinary western. T.J. Breckinridge runs a struggling rodeo on tour through Mexico in the early 20th century. Her former boyfriend, Tuck Kirby, wants to buy her out, but she doesn’t want to sell. T.J. has an ace up her sleeve. Gypsies brought her a tiny horse from Forbidden Valley and she expects it will be a great attraction. A paleontologist named Horace Bromley, recognizes the animal as no ordinary horse. He declares it’s the prehistoric horse, Eohippus. The leader of the gypsies say the little horse is cursed and convince Bromley to capture the horse and return it to Forbidden Valley. Bromley, of course, is interested to see what other creatures might live there. To get the horse, the gypsies have to knock out one of T.J.’s men, Carlos.

Tuck sees the gypsies leaving and discovers they’ve taken the Eohippus. He sets out after them. Unfortunately, Carlos saw Tuck and thinks he’s responsible for the theft. T.J., Carlos, and several of the rodeo riders set out after Tuck. They all soon arrive just outside the Forbidden Valley. After sorting out what’s going on, Tuck nearly recaptures the Eohippus, only to have it disappear into a cave in the cliff face. T.J., Tuck, Horace, and the rodeo riders set out after it. It turns out the Eohippus didn’t go into a cave, but entered a passageway leading to the Forbidden Valley. The rodeo men clear out some rocks and soon our band goes riding into the valley.

Once in the valley, our heroes discover that Eohippus isn’t the only prehistoric creature living there. They’re soon attacked by a pteranodon. After dealing with the flying creature, they encounter a small plant eating dinosaur. The rodeo riders decide it would make an even better attraction than Eohippus, so they chase it, only to have the dinosaur snapped up in the jaws of Gwangi, an Allosaurus. From this point on, the movie becomes full-on cowboys versus beautiful Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs. Our rodeo riders take refuge in a cave that foreshadows the Land of the Lost TV series I watched as a kid. Eventually, the cowboys capture Gwangi and take him back to town. In a finale reminiscent of King Kong, Gwangi breaks free and rampages through the town where he corners T.J. and Tuck in a cathedral.

All in all, the movie is great fun and a terrific example of a Weird Western story. As always, Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion monsters are a marvel to behold. There’s a scene where the rodeo riders attempt to lasso Gwangi and Harryhausen seamlessly blended the live-action and stop-motion photography. The only real problem with the effects happened because the film’s post-production was rushed and Harryhausen was never allowed to color correct his footage. As a result, the dinosaurs have a tendency to change colors from purple to gray to green from scene to scene. While I’m not generally a fan of tinkering with old movies, I wouldn’t mind seeing a color-corrected special edition of this film where the dinosaurs are each a consistent color.

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5 comments on “The Valley of Gwangi

  1. I’ve yet to see the film; now I’m interested in checking it out. My just-released role-playing supplement does briefly touch on the possibility of a Weird Western setting where an elven tribe can meet dwarven prospectors, and touches on the possibility of dinosaurs showing up.

    But I’m with you–I generally don’t like tinkering with old movies. (I have no plans to see *Casablanca* in color. Arthur Edeson’s cinematography wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award for black and white films because it should be changed to color.) But in this case I would imagine the creators of the film would want the color consistent, so I’d be fine with that.

    I didn’t know who Ray Harryhausen was until I heard Ray Bradbury praise his work. I think that was the first time I saw Bradbury in person. I probably remember that connection largely because they’re both named “Ray.”

    • Hope you enjoy it when and if you do check out the movie. That’s fun that you have the possibility of elven tribes, dwarven prospectors and dinosaurs in one setting in your game. The more I hear, the more I think I need to check this out.

      In the “Making of” featurette included with my copy of the film, Harryhausen himself said he’d intended to color-correct the film before release. So yes, I think this is a case where some post-production work could make a film closer to the creators’ intention.

      When I first met Ray Bradbury, he talked about being friends with Ray Harryhausen in high school and how they dreamed of making a movie about dinosaurs. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms ended up being their dream-come-true. Bradbury did the screenplay (loosely adapted from his story “The Lighthouse”) and Harryhausen did the special effects. Interestingly, another time I heard Bradbury speak, he mentioned that he’d been hired to write the screenplay for Moby Dick because of that same short story. John Huston had said it was clear to him that Bradbury understood the hearts of lonely monsters, whether they be dinosaurs or white whales.

      • To avoid being misleading, I should say that the supplement doesn’t go into any detail on an elves plus dwarves plus dinosaurs setting. Among a number of campaign ideas for elves, it briefly mentions using elves and dwarves in the Old West, and also refers to a Weird Western supplement where “Big Lizzie” is not a big cow….

        I think I saw Ray Bradbury in person a couple of times before I actually got to meet him. It ended up that a very close friend of mine’s mother had acted in one of his plays.

  2. I’ll have to suggest it to my husband. He’s a real Harryhausen fan.

    • Definitely a must-see for Harryhausen fans. Admittedly the color-correction issue keeps this from being his best looking work, but cowboys and dinosaurs are something that hasn’t been done often enough and this was a fun take on the premise.

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