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The Valley of Gwangi

"Cowboys and dinosaurs" must be one of the all-time great Hollywood "high concept" pitches, and The Valley of Gwangi does give us plenty of both. It has at least one sequence that belongs on any enthusiast's list of Top 5 Dinosaur Scenes Ever. However, this 1969 opus from co-producer and stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen suffers from a familiar problem: as in his other Giant Creature features, from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to Mysterious Island, the special-effects work is better than the rest of the movie.

The concept sounds great on paper: Members of a struggling Wild West show traveling through Mexico find Forbidden Valley, a lost world containing the last holdovers from the era of dinosaurs. There they capture Gwangi, a giant carniverous allosaur, in hopes of making it their show's star attraction. The movie sticks to the threadbare King Kong formula when the towering monster breaks its bonds and goes on a rampage. On the plus side, The Valley of Gwangi gives us some of the most memorable of Harryhausen spectacles. The scene with four cowboys lassoing Gwangi is justifiably famous, and the beast's hemmed-in confrontation in the town square and inside the church is first-rate even by modern standards. Its battle with a circus elephant is one of numerous similarities to 20 Million Miles to Earth. The movie's dinosaur design was based on the art of Charles R. Knight, a nostalgic data point for viewers whose childhood imaginings predate Jurassic Park. Another Harryhausen treat is the toy-like Eohippus, a long-extinct horse the size of a house cat.

But to get to the dinos we must first suffer through a story that plods along and that's peopled by wooden cut-outs. Half the movie passes before the allosaur leaps into frame for its startling entrance. James Franciscus cuts a bland hero, and Gila Golan (Our Man Flint) is the stiffest of love interests. Even Richard Carlson, who fought The Creature From the Black Lagoon, barely registers. It says something about the production and about Harryhausen's artistry when we realize that Gwangi, the snarling dinosaur created from a tabletop model, is the most realistically alive character on the screen.

This Schneer/Harryhausen production had been a pet project of Willis O'Brien, who had wanted to do it in 1942. By the time Harryhausen dusted off his mentor's notes, The Valley of Gwangi was a relic of an antiquated era. Even though it was aimed chiefly at kids (who must have sighed like bored accordians through all the mushy stuff), the movie bombed. The year of Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider was too late in the day for this old-fashioned pulp yarn where cowboys are named Rowdy, Champ, and Tuck. (Let's hope that there's an alternate universe where Harryhausen teamed up with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin to make this the Wild Wild West movie that should have been.) Despite its shortcomings and because of that always-entertaining Harryhausen spectacle, decades of Saturday afternoon TV airings have secured The Valley of Gwangi in the hearts and memories of erstwhile ten-year-old boys everywhere.

*          *          *

Warner Brothers' DVD edition delivers The Valley of Gwangi with an excellent print and transfer (1.85:1 anamorphic). The imagery is clean and vivid, and the Dolby Digital 1.0 audio serves the rootin'-tootin' orchestral score by Jerome Moross very well. Fans who already own Mysterious Island and other Harryhausen discs won't be surprised by some instances of heavier grain and dirt during "Super Dynamation" and matte process shots that required layers of film sandwiched together. All the same, Gwangi looks great from head to tail.

A bonus extra is a mini-feauturette, Return to the Valley (8:05). Shot in 2003, it features Harryhausen, still hale and hearty at 83, talking about the movie's conception and development. Joining him are several starstruck young SFX professionals from Industrial Light and Magic. Appropriately reverent, they discuss the inspiration that Harryhausen and Gwangi gave to them and to their work on Jurassic Park, and remain awestruck as they examine how to lasso an allosaur.

Also here is a collection of amusingly overbaked vintage trailers for Gwangi, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Black Scorpion, and Clash of the Titans. And there's an Easter Egg: On the features menu, highlight Return to the Valley and then click right for an interview clip wherein Harryhausen recounts a cute incident involving his young daughter, a certain Gwangi model, and some nosy old ladies. Snap-case.

—Mark Bourne

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