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This review is from: The Valley of Gwangi [DVD]  (DVD)
TJ Breckenridge (Gila Golan) struggles to keep her rodeo and is threatened to be bought out by former fiancé Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus). However, TJ has one last hope in the form of a miniature horse, believed by palaeontologist Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith) to be extinct ancestor of the horse. A travelling group of gypsies claim the animal will bring a terrible curse and take the animal back to its home in the "Forbidden Valley". They are followed by Kirby and TJ, the former hoping to discover more prehistoric animals. He is not disappointed and during a hair-raising adventure he plans to capture the awesome Gwangi, a ferocious allosaurus, and display it as star attraction in a new show. However, it would appear that Gwangi is the very curse Kirby and TJ were warned about...
1969's "Valley of the Gwangi" seems to finally exorcize Harryhausen's ideas regarding the dangers of humans messing with nature, specifically the topic of taking a "natural" wonder into human civilization. In the film that inspired him, "King Kong", audiences felt some sympathy for the ferocious giant gorilla that slew all other monsters that challenged him and ate humans, when he fell for the beautiful Ann (Faye Raye). Seeing that many were upset at the final demise of the great ape as he fell from the Empire State Building riddled with bullets, Harryhausen assisted Kong creator, Willis O'Brien in the creation of "Mighty Joe Young". This time a smaller giant ape was cast entirely as a sympathetic character and we got a happy ending. With "Valley of the Gwangi" we get the other side of King Kong personality in Harryhausen's last prehistoric-themed feature film and Kong's old arch-foe from Skull Island, the allosaurus, gets centre stage as an emotionless and relentless force of nature that man foolishly thinks he can harness.
However, such considerations were certainly far from my mind when I first saw this as a five year old on a Saturday morning TV matinee. For many a young boy, "Valley of the Gwangi" had had the perfect formula: cowboys versus dinosaurs. It was among the first monster movies I saw and part of the reason why I fell in love with Ray Harryhausen's films. Few filmmakers can be forgiven for as much as this dealer in innocent fantasy adventure. I love my history and mythology, and am usually a stickler for facts and anachronisms. However, without Harryhausen I don't know whether I would have that passion in the first instance. So I care little for his mixing of legends, times and ideas. Years on and we see more inaccuracies with the depictions of his stop-motion dinosaurs, but this just to seems to add to the whole other worldliness of the Harryhausen experience. Harryhausen's dinosaurs rarely resemble what scientists believe they looked anyway and the man himself admits of his ignorance, basing Gwangi's design more on a tyrannosaurus rex than an allosaurus.
Interestingly this was not the first time that Hollywood decided to create a genre crossover. 13 years previously "The Beast of Hollow Mountain" also featured a rampaging allosaurus in the old west. Despite being based on a concept conceived by stop-motion godfather, Willis O'Brien, "The Best of Hollow Mountain" is one of the most disappointing entries of a genre that began with 1925's "The Lost World" and finished with 1980's "Clash of the Titans". I love a good build-up as much as the next person, particularly when dealing with the fantastical and the monstrous, but this feature takes the whole idea of slow-burn way too far. The poorly animated allosaurus has about five minutes of screen time at the film's finale. It seems that Harryhausen took note of the film's lacklustre performance and addressed all these errors with "Gwangi". The result is an action-packed adventure with a good mixture of cowboys and dinosaurs. The acting is reasonable and the simplistic story serves its purpose, using the Harryhausen charm to allow us to wilfully suspend disbelief.
"Valley of the Gwangi", like the earlier "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms", is perhaps the closest Harryhausen came to science fiction and you can see he has little time for it. He casts the scientist as the amoral meddler in the natural world. Being an ardent supporter and promoter of science and the scientific method, not to mention one who has grown up in the culture of an animal circus, you would think I would be in aggressive opposition to this sort of picture. However, I can appreciate it through quasi-child eyes and see it less as an anti-scientific sentiment and more as an audacious cry out for the innocence of juvenile fantasy. On this note it seems appropriate that the closing scene features a child with tears in his eyes.