Cyberlizard goes to the movies

The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Director Jim O'Connolly, starring James Franciscus, Gina Golan, Richard Carlson, Freda Jackson, Gustavo Rojo, Mario de Barros, Dennis Kilbane, Curtis Arden and Jose Burgos

These days, where CGI is now so common that it appears in Saturday evening TV programmes and Jurassic Park is now almost a legacy film, it is salutory to remember films which had to rely on older technology. Such a film is The Valley of Gwangi, a western-fantasy film mainly remembered today for its effects by the legendary Ray Harryhausen.

The plot

Rough and roguish Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) turns up at the somewhat struggling rodeo run by the beautiful Miss T J Breckenridge (Gila Golan). The two were once professional and personal partners, but now Kirby's attention is to buy Breckenridge out. However Breckenridge and her associates believe they have an ace in the hole, a tiny horse-like creature, which she later shows to Kirby. Kirby by now has got to know the English palaentologist Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith), who on seeing the horse pronounces it to be a living specimen of the early proto-horse Eohippus. Both men have ideas about using it for their own advancement in terms of money or reputation, but a blind old Mexican gypsy woman claims that until the creature is returned to the valley, everyone involved is under a curse. Through a series of subsequent actions the protagonists together with the rest of the cowboys from the rodeo find themselves in the valley whence the Eohippus came, only to find themselves facing creatures of a bygone era, including the fearsome Gwangi.

The film

Some old films are cult classics, others fall into the subcategory of "awful B-movie". The Valley of Gwangi falls somewhere in between, not because of its legacy special effects which for the time were actually quite reasonable and certainly at the same level of much-loved films such as Jason and the Argonauts or One Million Years BC, but because of a somewhat slow start, ropey script and unmemorable cast. To be fair, the idea of pitting cowboys (the story takes place at the turn of the twentieth century) versus dinosaurs was an imaginative twist, but appears here to have run the risk of making the film neither fish nor fowl, though some people may find it an enjoyable juxtaposition of the two genres.

The film was a USA production but shot in Spain (standing in for North America/Mexico) and filmed with a slightly international cast, Golan being Israeli, Rojo being Uruguayan and a couple of others being English. However some of the clichés which were acceptable at the time now do grate slightly, even when one takes the era into account - for example of the main cast, the Mexican cowboy (Rojo) is shown as passionate but somewhat treacherous and is the one of only two main protagonists to be killed by the dinosaurs, the other being Horace Bromley who is portrayed as the archetypal shifty upper-class Englishman. Apart from the "plucky Mexican kid" figure of Lope (Curtis Arden, who despite his Mexican appearance was actually English!), the Mexicans seem to mainly provide shifty gipsies (again, the blind old gypsy was played by Freda Jackson, an Englishwoman who made something of a career in horror and fantasy movies as well as more "serious" productions) to be later killed, or simply large numbers of cannon fodder to be panicked and/or devoured/trampled on. The dinosaurs themselves are shown as people of the era regarded them, ie as ever hungry and bellicose, even the vegetarians such as Styracosaurus., and the issue of men shooting or taking captive living fossils is not addressed, although one could argue that nemesis is reached when Gwangi escapes to wreak a terrible vengeance on spectators. The basic outline of the story seems to owe much to the original King Kong, though without primitive human tribes. Perhaps I'm being a bit harsh here - to reiterate, the film is a product of its time, and a look at the IMDB movie database appears to indicate that it does have its followers.

Of the cast, I only recognised Laurence Naismith who was probably better known to British viewers for his TV roles in such series as The Pretenders, in which Curtis Arden played his apparently only other acting role in film/TV. Freda Jackson continued to have an acting career into the 1980s, passing away in 1990.

In sum, a film probably of interest mainly to buffs of the genre(s) and admirers of Ray Harryhausen.

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