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.
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.
You can find Robert E. Vardeman’s Patreon at: https://www.patreon.com/robertevardeman
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