Search This Blog

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Month of AlloSundays: The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Written by William E. Bast; additional material by Julian More
Adapted from an earlier unfinished project by Willis H. O'Brien
Directed by James O'Connolly

Creator of Visual Effects:  Ray Harryhausen

James Franciscus:  Tuck
Gila Golan:  T.J.
Laurence Naismith:  Professor Bromley
Curtis Arden:  Lope
Gwangi:  Himself

Looks like I got the long end of the stick on this one--my friend Bryan over at Cinemasochist Apocalypse called me up and asked if I would take it the wrong way if he got in on this "month of AlloSundays" action by reviewing The Beast of Hollow Mountain. That turns out to be an Allosaurus movie I don't have, so I was fine with him joining in to pay a little tribute to the Shemp Howard of dinosaurs. I like roundtables, so if anyone else out there in B Movie Internet Land wants to join in, please feel free. Bryan even covered the actual paleontology behind the name "Allosaurus" and a brief history of the fossil discoveries, so there's plenty of information to pinch if you feel like it.

Me? I'm just here to talk about the monster movies, not actual science.

First off, it turns out that all three of my movies were "people go to a lost place where extinct animals are still around" films; two of those lost worlds were in the Antarctic and today's is in Mexico (where I would expect the climate to be a little more hospitable to surviving dinos). And there's a lot of story beats in all three movies that play out the same--there's only so many different ways to use the plot where a bunch of adults explore a hitherto unknown area and see dinosaurs. But in this one, there's more than a few curveballs in the script (and after The Land that Time Forgot, I was really ready for something less bland and aimless).

The film seems like a throwback to the Fifties to me, at least partially because of the super-bombastic score that plays over the pre-credits scenery while a bunch of Mexican gypsies look for a particular Mexican gypsy that has taken a beating (he's got lacerations on his face, which, as the Dr. Phibes movies have taught us all, means he will die soon). He's also got a small sack which has something inside it that's squirming around and whinnying like a horse. I doubt that he's got a shrinking ray so it's got to be something else, doesn't it?

He collapses in a spring-fed pond and dies like a minor character in a Cormac McCarthy novel just as his pursuers catch up to him. The obligatory Blind Old Woman makes pronouncements that anyone who steals from "Gwangi the evil one" is cursed--one presumes fatally. The gypsy who picked up the burlap sack with a micro-horse in it doesn't go in for all that nonsense about curses and evil ones. The woman says everybody's doomed if the whatever-it-is in the bag doesn't get returned to the hidden valley. So whatever happens between now and the end of the film is this guy's fault if he doesn't bring the horse back and let it go into the wild. A year after Night of the Living Dead changed the rules seems to be a bit late for the "superstition versus reason" dialogue, too, but a huge part of the charm of this film is its throwback nature.

And the film itself is quite cognizant of changing times and changing tastes in entertainment--similar to the way Singin' in the Rain is a metatextual document chronicling the uncertainty in Hollywood during the rise of television via comment on silent movies accepting the advent of sound, this film comments on the changing marketplace of entertainment as well. Watching the movie now, one cannot help but feel that the dinosaur is an excellent metaphor for a science fiction filmmaking style that was going to be too expensive to produce over the coming decades as well as a harmless thrill ride of a monster movie made about half a decade before Leatherface was going to hurt the feelings of generations of movie watchers. One of the protagonists is T. J. Breckenridge. She's the owner and star attraction of the Breckenridge Wild West Show, a traveling circus that entertains people in the early 1900s "somewhere south of the Rio Grande", which I take to mean south Texas or northern Mexico.

The circus appears to be pretty prosperous as far as I can tell; there's two dozen people in its marching band and the performers and animals all look to be well-fed. The costumes aren't threadbare and the prop stagecoach that one guy rides atop isn't falling apart (the gaudy colors for the costumes and buildings really pop on the DVD--I bet this looked really cool in actual theaters). As the circus makes parade through the town, a handsome nattily-dressed stranger walks past the camera and he's got to be the protagonist because the shot follows him instead of the suspiciously white-looking "Indians" brandishing spears and bows and following the stagecoach. One of those kids that shows up in monster movies accosts the new arrival to see if he needs someone to carry his luggage or show him around town. The gringo protagonist gives him the brushoff until he finds out that Lope is an orphan, and acting as a general errand boy for anyone in town for food money.

Lope gets pressed into service to find the arena where the Wild West circus will be performing and the pair go to see the show (which gives the filmmakers a chance to show a lot of diegetically motivated stunts; there's an "Indian attack" on a stagecoach that requires plenty of falling off of horses and blank rifle shots being fired. I don't envy the performer that has to be inside the covered wagon when the attackers set it on fire. After the stunt exhibition, the next act is T. J. Breckenridge and her wonder horse Omar, who have a high-diving act. The unnamed protagonist in the natty suit turns out to have a history with the show and with T. J.; the stunt performers are happy to see him again and the ringmaster hopes that he gets hit by lightning.

Oh, and the high dive act involves riding a horse off a platform into a tank full of incredibly nasty looking water; the rim of the tank is on fire. This is what people went to go see before the advent of cinema, and there's got to be a better way to make a living. Omar doesn't look too thrilled to be doing the act. The unfriendly small talk between the ringmaster and Tuck the ne'er do well delivers a little more exposition; the circus is losing money and can't meet its bills. Apparently he used to perform with the show, but left (leaving a great deal of bad blood between T. J. and him) and now he's come back--though the people in charge of the circus want very, very little to do with him.

Tuck has moved up in the world; he's a talent agent for circuses and vaudeville, making more money for less work and absolutely no leaping off of horses in a dirt-floored arena. He's come to the Breckenridge show to make an offer for Omar courtesy of the Buffalo Bill show. T. J. is having absolutely none of it (Tuck being a smarmy jerk, possibly as a way to keep her rattled and get a better deal for Omar out of it, doesn't help) and he exits the conversation a half step ahead of the hairbrush she chucks at him.

Later, in the desert, Tuck and Lope are traveling back from the show and run across Professor Bromley, someone who makes regular use of Lope's errand-running and item-fetching business. Bromley's a paleontologist of the "daffy British upper-class goofball" stripe, digging holes in the desert looking for the bones of extinct creatures. Bromley has a theory that humanity is orders of magnitude older than the currently accepted theories would claim. He's got a chunk of rock with an Eohippus hoofprint in it--and the same rock has a hominid leg bone fragment. Bromley's theory is that the ancestors of humans as we know them today were around tens of millions of years earlier than the scientific consensus would have it. Tuck's mostly just impressed by the tininess of the Eohippus hoofprint. Bromley is genuinely dedicated to his research, but he's running out of money, food and liquor. Hard to say which one is most vital to his efforts, but needless to say all of them are important. And Tuck clearly doesn't quite know what to make about the unprecedented appearance of a humanoid leg bone in fifty million year old rock; he and Lope leave the scientist to his labors.

Meanwhile, back at the arena, T. J. is fending off the advances of the Mexican gypsy from before the credits. She owes him money for "El Diablo", whatever that is, and he wants to upgrade their partnership from "business venture" to "boyfriend / girlfriend". Tuck shows up just in time to unknowingly shoo away the guy that T. J. owes money to and Lope decides to try his hand at bullfighting after seeing one of the performers on the show working on that act. The kid falls down the second he tries to run away from the bull and only Tuck (and a few other people) intervening keeps him from getting hurt or killed. Plus T. J. shows that she's actually very concerned about her ex and they wind up rekindling their relationship.

The love story, business problems and scientific paradoxes work amazingly well to disguise the fact that we haven't had any Ray Harryhausen effects in the movie yet. There's enough going on and the performances are credible enough that the viewer doesn't necessarily need there to be dinosaurs and lost worlds.

Though when they get to the dinosaurs, I certainly won't complain.

In the wake of Tuck's heroism (and injury; the bull kicked or head-butted him in a manner that the camera didn't show) lead to a private conference in T. J.'s bedroom. Tuck, the cad, uses his status as life-saving hero in order to make another bid for Omar the wonder horse. T. J. says she's happy to sell to him, because there's a new act that the circus has--one that will pack crowds in from miles around. Tuck's mercenary enough to want to know what the new thing is, even more than he wants to seal the deal to buy Omar.

The new act is "El Diablo", and El Diablo turns out to be something that Carlos the gypsy brought in a sack. It's a tiny little horse--one that comes out of his dollhouse-sized barn when T. J. plays a tune on a music box. The show worked up an act--a platform on Omar's back instead of a saddle, with El Diablo dancing on top of it. That is really neat, but I think the people in the cheap seats are going to feel ripped off. And I have to say I think El Diablo is the finest example of Ray Harryhausen's genius. He made monsters, skeletons, gods, demons, dinosaurs and aliens all come alive through the miracle of Dynamation, but the Eohippus in this movie is truly amazing. Nobody who saw this movie was ever unfortunate enough to encounter an Allosaurus in the wild (you wouldn't be here if you had), but everyone's seen a horse--in person or in movies. We all know what they look like and how they move. And the miniature stop-motion creation in this movie doesn't look like a bad special effect of a horse, or even a great special effect of one. It just looks like a horse. The skill and precision that went into its appearance in the film are breathtaking.

Tuck is in a unique position--he understands that El Diablo is even more valuable than T. J. thinks it is, because it's a living Eohippus (Professor Bromley was kind enough to point out the toes in the fossilized tracks, and El Diablo matches up to those perfectly). He sneaks the scientist into the room where El Diablo is being held and listens to him rhapsodize about getting a knighthood and all that kind of thing. Tuck has visions of a bidding war between the Ringling Brothers and P. T. Barnum in his own head (and I really like the way both characters are so lost in thought that neither one listens to the other's rapturous fantasies of wealth and prestige even though they're only a couple of feet away from each other). Bromley decides that they need to know where El Diablo came from, and that means talking to Carlos first.

Carlos takes an instant dislike to both men, unfortunately, and refuses to tell Tuck or Bromley where the gypsy camp is; he has visions of money he'll never make because T. J. told outsiders about El Diablo before the show was ready to capitalize on the Eohippus' existence properly. Tuck decides to ask Lope about the gypsy camp (which turns out to be the absolutely right move--the kid gets him and Bromley there that night). The old blind woman refuses to tell either man where the hidden valley is, and pronounces doom on everyone if they don't return the tiny horse from whence it came. Bromley tries something clever--telling the old blind seer where the horse is hidden, so that when the gypsies try to return it to the valley he can follow them.

The next day at a cantina, Tuck is working on a beer and a dilemma--he can either help T. J. make a skabillion dollars exhibiting El Diablo, or get an equally large fortune himself using the little bitty horse. And he turns out to be much less of a scoundrel than everyone in the movie thinks he is, possibly including himself, because it is a genuine problem for him. Lope offers some advice and mentions that he's got to meet the Professor by the arena that night with a mule; this lets Tuck know that plans are afoot (or possibly a-hoof), but he gets to the Breckenridge show just in time to get accused of swiping El Diablo himself. Carlos got suckerpunched from behind by a dwarf with a crowbar during the theft, but he thinks it was Tuck that walloped him.

So we have the Science Faction, the Showmanship Faction and the Superstition Faction all rushing through some really boss desert panoramas to get to the forbidden valley and return El Diablo to the lost world; Tuck is on Team Showmanship, but none of the faux cowboys and Indians are likely to believe that after Carlos and the ringmaster are done talking about what a jerk he is. Tuck snags the professor and demands information; the prof says something that nobody else had thought of. If there was one Eohippus, there has to be more in the lost valley. And that means that he could get a few to do science on and the Breckenridge carnival would be able to show off a dozen of them to the crowned heads of Europe, garnering the people's ovation and fame forever.

Tuck, Lope and Bromley make it to the rear projection of mountains and cliffs that mark the edges of the forbidden valley and scope the place out, planning to go there the next morning when they can see (this movie, like many others of its vintage, is filming slightly dim for night, but there were other sequences in the gypsy camp that were actually dark; my guess is that matting in the dinosaurs and other stop-motion critters requires brighter images). And just before halfway through the movie to the second, a pterodactyl flaps across the screen. The trio of adventurers follow the gypsies' tracks to the point that El Diablo was set loose; the mini horse ran to its home in the valley, which means that by following its tracks they can find their way into the Mexican lost world and hopefully grab a wagonload of Eohippi to show off to the world.

Lope finds another campsite and while Tuck is looking around, T. J. lassos him and declares that she's found a horse thief. His unjustified beating doesn't happen because someone sees El Diablo wandering around near the campsite and there's a lightly comic scene of a whole bunch of people from two of the factions trying to edge up to the Eohippus and not freak it out (and again, other than some problems matting the rear-projection to the actors' footage the horse looks absolutely convincing). Their efforts fail and El Diablo runs into a narrow crack in the mountain that leads into the Forbidden Valley. The various people trying to get the horse follow along; it turns out that a boulder blocking the entrance to the cavern can be pulled down with exactly three horsepower of pulling and a few ropes.

During this sequence the score sounds much more like a Western than a monster flick; it's a nice touch. The score turns much brassier and strident when a pterodactyl scoops Lope off his horse and tries to fly away with him; it turns out that the kid's too heavy for the predator to take him back to a nest, or even stay airborne for very long. Carlos gets in a fight with the grounded dinosaur and breaks its neck (similar to the goofy monster boots in The Beast from Hollow Mountain, the live-action prop that the performers interact with is not up to the cooler-than-real standards that Harryhausen sets with his stop-motion creatures). There also appeared to be a problem with printing the film or getting the color balance right with the pterodactyl--it looks purple and blue in the stop-motion shots but the prop dino is dark green (this color-timing problem persists through the movie--Gwangi is muddy grey, dark green, blue, dark brown or purple at various points; when I got this movie back from a coworker she left a Post-it note reading "Purple Monsterrrrrr" on it as her review).

Everyone else catches up to Carlos and Lope and gape at the dead pterodactyl until one of the cowboy performers gets a look at a living Struthomimus eating leaves off a bush. They immediately decide they need one for the show and chase after it on horseback--the scene's kind of whimsical, with the dinosaur fleeing and vocalizing while a line of men on horseback get their lassos out so they can try to capture it alive (it's not nearly as hostile as the pterodactyl was, which is good news for them). The score stops at the same time as the horses do when Gwangi strides into the frame and eats the smaller dinosaur. On the one hand, the cowboys are instantly terrified, but on the other hand--if a tiny horse was worth millions, imagine what showing off a fully grown adult Allosaurus would be worth...

Unfortunately the cowboys are outclassed--their guns only have blanks (they're showmen, after all, and they aren't slinging live ammo around when going through their act) and they certainly aren't going to be able to punch Gwangi into submission. Carlos gets a neat moment where he realizes the stories about the evil one that rules the forbidden valley were a lot closer to truth than he ever said they were, and the group gallops off to warn T. J., Lope and Bromley that there's a threat coming. The horses and men must smell delicious, because Gwangi follows them along.

Everyone but the paleontologist flees, so Bromley gets a front-row seat for a fight between Gwangi and a Styracoraurus (and he seems as awe-struck and giddy as a child when he realizes what he's seeing); the Allosaurus scares the other dinosaur away and stomps off with the dead pterodactyl to eat it later. The mounted members of the party find a cave they can hide in if things get bad and then work out a plan to trap Gwangi and bring him back to civilization. The sequence where they accomplish this is an absolute standout of Ray Harryhausen's artistry and craft. Matting real actors on horseback in to a scene where they're lassoing a dinosaur that's really an eighteen-inch-tall armature with sculpted flesh and skin is the kind of thing that would be done with CGI today (and not look convincing) because there's no current economic motivation to let a single craftsman work for weeks or months to produce a single effects sequence. Apparently the real actors were lassoing a post on the back of a Jeep and the animated effects were superimposed over the vehicle.

And before that happens, there's a confrontation with Gwangi where he bites a blanket out of Carlos' hands; why is this movie not as revered as the Jason and the Argonauts fight with the skeletons? Is the color timing that big an issue? Are Westerns just not interesting to monster movie fans? You got me. I'm amazed every time Gwangi shows up on screen, myself. The attempt to have a dinosaur roundup goes quite badly (and fatally, for Carlos) until a rock fall stuns the beast. Nothing else the performers, paleontologist or Lope could think of worked at all, so if that boulder hadn't clocked him the movie would have been over. The prop used for the unconscious dinosaur falling over is pretty rotten, I have to say; further proof that there's nothing quite like a Harryhausen effect.

Monster secured, the troupe decides to bring him back to town in a rolling wheeled wooden cage (I love the sullen look on the dinosaur's face here) and show him off, as you do with gigantic unpredictable prehistoric beasts. On the way out of the desert, the old blind gypsy woman pronounces a curse on everyone for taking Gwangi out of the valley and Bromley makes the cogent and germane point that Gwangi isn't evil; he's just a fantastically dangerous animal. He specifically says that the Allosaurus has the same moral standing as an alligator and he's right (and the film says he's right as well, which is nice).

There's a lull in the action between getting Gwangi back to put him on display and the inevitable third-act rampage; Tuck and T. J. break up and Bromley gets indignant about putting the irreplaceable Gwangi out as a circus attraction, stalking off while saying the Royal Society will have to register a complaint about the shabby mercantilism involved in showing off a surviving dinosaur. When T. J. runs after her man the film gives them a bit of privacy while the reconcile--fine by me. The dialogue would have been the same in this scene as in any other "we belong together after all" reconciliation.

The seats are packed when the circus finally shows Gwangi off at the arena. The gypsies think that hauling the Evil One out of his valley is much worse than taking a tiny horse from there, and a dwarf opens the lock on the cage, hoping to cause a ruckus and keep the show from being profitable. Which he does, because the first thing people see when the cover is lifted from Gwangi's cage is him making an appetizer out of the dwarf. The second thing they see is the dinosaur going on a rampage in town. A posse is formed and the dinosaur fights an elephant (complete with amazingly awful trumpeting sound effects--the elephant noises in this movie are the auditory equivalent of the color-changing dinosaurs).

Gwangi runs amok in the streets and gets trapped in a cathedral; only the quick action of Tuck and the cowboys prevents massive loss of life, though they do have to burn the church down to do it (not that I mind at all, but someone's gonna complain to the Pope about this). And the old blind seer turns out to be pretty much utterly wrong--the doom was Gwangi's--the "evil one" she was worried about was the main victim in all of this. If they'd left him in his valley or just brought the Smithsonian and a bunch of cameras over there could have been scientific progress and knowledge unimaginable on a human scale. Instead there's just a burnt hide that could be stuffed and brought on tour as a reminder that giant flesh-eating beasts and public display don't mix.

"Yeah, let's see you try that torches-and-spears stuff NOW, you punks."


  1. Though JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS is probably Harryhausen's best, GWANGI will always be my favorite. Bad film stock was a problem with the ever-hue-changing dinosaur. Also, I think the reason the rodeo round-up isn't mentioned in the same breathe as the Children of the Hydra sequence is both bad luck and bad timing. Apparently, there was a regime change at Warner Bros. before the film was finished, a new regime that wanted nothing to do with the movie. Thus, it was released and yanked with little fanfare. And unlike Harryhausen's fantasy epics, GWANGI never got a re-release to theaters and remained relatively obscure until its video release sometime in the 1990s.

  2. Bad film stock? That's really appalling--Warner Brothers wasn't a poverty row studio, and there's no excuse for them shipping bad materials to their filmmakers.

    I think 1969 was probably a little too late for something this whimsical (even with the death and destruction at the end); there's the obvious child-identification character, and plenty of time taken up with the intrigues involving the wild west show for the first half of the film. It's incredibly welcome when the dinosaurs show up, and I bet audiences at the time responded poorly to the horse theft and countertheft when they wanted to see an Allosaurus.