A Journal Of The Dark Arts
It’s cowboys vs. dinosaurs in the Forbidden Valley in the under-appreciated Ray Harryhausen dino-pic!
When i was little, my Mom would occasionally let me stay from church on certain Sundays, despite our fervent religiosity. I was fostering another secret spiritualism – worshipping at The Church Of Dinosaurs, like nearly every child on Earth at a certain point in their trajectory.
On these special days, local TV stations (this was even before cable, let alone satellite or Internet), they would air dinosaur movie marathons – full of stop-motion, claymation wonder. Palm dotted prehistoric landscapes would thrillingly leap to life, with the earth trembling beneath the mighty taloned claws of the thunder lizards!
While I’m pretty sure I never saw The Valley Of Gwangi when I was little, i wish i would’ve. My inner 8-year old trembled in feverish delight visiting The Valley Of Gwangi all these years later, despite it being a bit of a cut-rate B-dino flick.
The Valley Of Gwangi is set somewhere in Texas or Northern Mexico, somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century. The story revolves around a failing cowboy show circus, run by the beguiling T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan). The film begins with a talent scout for the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus), Gwangi‘s alpha male action star, and former love interest of Breckeneridge.
Kirby shows up to rescue Breckenridge from the claptrap world of rodeo, but it turns out she doesn’t need his help. Her new assistant, Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), has made a startling discovery in the ominously titled Forbidden Valley.
Carlos absconded with a tiny horse, which is set to set the world on fire, making Breckeneridge an overnight global sensation.
Kirby, ever the wheeler-dealer, shows the miniature horse to Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith), who reveals it to be an ancestor of the modern horse, an Eohippus.
But how did a creature thought to be extinct for 50-million years come to be in this sawdust cowboy show?
Professor Bromley hatches a plot to find the Forbidden Valley, alerting “the gypsies” (Romany in Mexico? Really?) to the Eohippus’ whereabouts. Predictably, they abscond with the tiny horse, and lead the team of rugged heroes, with token heroine, straight to the Forbidden Valley.
The Forbidden Valley has been cut off from time for 50-million years, where dinosaurs still dwell, ruled by the ferocious Allosaurus GWANGI!
Despite having a lot of charms and perks, The Valley Of Gwangi is NOT a great film. It IS worth watching, however, thanks to the glorious stop motion special effects of claymation sci-fi/fantasy warlock Ray Harryhausen.
Turns out Gwangi had been kicking around for decades, with Harryhausen’s mentor and fellow claymation genius Willis O’ Brien, the mastermind behind King Kong and Arthur Conan Doyle‘s The Lost World. Brien, unfortunately, died before the Gwangi9 was filmed.
The Valley Of Gwangi was Harryhausen’s last dinosaur flick, and is worth seeing for that alone. And while we may take special FX like these for granted, these days, Harryhausen went to insanely elaborate lengths to bring his thunder lizards to life.
Consider the scene where the cowboys round up Gwangi. To get that shot, they had the actors ride in circles around a jeep mounted with a pole, which they used as a target for their lassos. Afterwards, Harryhausen built his Allosaurus model, with four rigid wires extending from its neck. With each shot (and it takes 14 shots to fill a second, keep in mind), Harryhausen would make sure the angle of the wires lined up with the lassos which had already been filmed. Likewise, an early form of green screen was used, with the filmed footage projected on a backdrop for the models. Harryhausen would have to match the landscape and the lighting, as well, to complete the illusion.
Harryhausen’s special FX could be seen as a visual analog to the music of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Technological FX that we now take for granted, like signal generators, tape loops, echo, and reverb, used to take insane lengths to achieve. Even though the FX are now commonplace, there’s something in that EFFORT that comes across, that still seems exceptional and exciting, even all these years later.
Those looking for deep, insightful, relatable characters best look elsewhere, as Gwangi’s cast is a stock pool of archetypal characters. There’s the Action Star, the Faithful Friend, the Glamorous Starlet. There’s even a Bruja, a Mexican hustler, and a doddering old professor. Those looking for originality will probably do better looking somewhere else.
That’s probably not the reason most people would watch The Valley Of Gwangi, however. Have you ever wanted to see a cowboy wrestle a Pteradon to the ground? Or fire rifles at a Stegosaurus? Or round up an Allosaurus?
If the answer is “yes”, (and it probably is), then you should definitely waste no time in seeing this film.
It’s worth for the thrilling, fireball climax in the Spanish cathedral in a small Mexican town. THAT’s a setting you’ve likely not seen a dinosaur movie take place!
The Valley Of Gwangi illustrated a very particular kind of American hauntology, with action stars, bombshells, and extinct species replacing the decrepit, eerie, wyrd aristocracy of much of the British variety.
Americans seem hard-wired for Adventure, for Exploration. Wide-open shots of (in this case) lathering horses tearing across a barren desert landscape reveals our obsession with speed, with FORWARD, which has already begun to succumb to melancholia and nostalgia. We’d love to race forward, but we no longer know how, or which way to go.
I remember my cousin, who’s quite a bit older than me, being obsessed with Westerns like these. I also remember my Dad telling tall tales of Daniel Boone and Fort Sumner, which have retreated to become kind of an ancestral memory, at this point. These memories (and stories) elicit a nostalgic feeling, mostly as we can no longer return.
With so much of America’s history (and, perhaps, World History) being built on exploitation and empire, can we ever feel good about these stories and ideas again?
In this way, American Westerns and cowboy flicks reflect both the shadowy side of Lounge and Exotica music and the decadent aristocracy of authors like Edgar Allan Poe or directors like Fellini.
Still, that’s the attraction of Hauntology and hypnogogic pop. They allow us to return to our childlike mindset, before all of the associations of the world set their talons in. Which can, of course, be dangerous as well.
But it’s just a cowboy/dinosaur movie, after all. Let us set the colonial theory aside for a while, and watch some dinos rassle!
Stream The Valley Of Gwangi on Putlocker.
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Tune into tonight for a special Lost Worlds edition of Morningstar: The Light In The Darkness @ Freeform Portland! Expect desolate, dead cities in decay and radioactive jungles, full of all manner of strange life!