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THE VALLEY OF THE GWANGI (1969)

Written By:

Christian Jones
valley gwangi

An archaeologist chasing fortune and glory, the owner of a failing Wild West Show and her cowboy crew, a band of gypsies with a mysterious secret discover a Forbidden Valley populated with dinosaurs. Chaos ensues when the cowboy’s capture an allosaurus and when they return to civilisation the creature escapes and does what creatures tend to do in such situations. It eats a dwarf and goes on the rampage!

The Valley of the Gwangi is a curious beast of a film. Released in 1969, it was a box office bomb and in some respects, it’s easy to see why. On paper, it has all the hallmarks of a box office bonanza, cowboys vs dinosaurs! Now that sounds awesome, right? The problem, however, is that the first half of the film is essentially a ploddingly dull, uninvolving B-movie western, the type that was rife during the Western’s heyday of the ‘50s. By the late ‘60s, westerns had become gritty, violent, bullet-bloody horse opera’s courtesy of directors such as Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah, so the western elements of Gwangi were already antediluvian. Even Oscar-winning Jerome Morris’ score as good as it is, and he was the go-to composer for Western’s, sounds somewhat dated. The performances from practically all of the cast is perfunctory at best. And if it isn’t perfunctory then there’s an excess of scenery chewing, except that is from James Franciscus, whom would later journey to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and who manages to bring some gravitas to the proceedings.

It’s not until halfway through the film that we enter the eponymous valley and the pace finally breaks into a gallop. It’s at this point that we also see Ray Harryhausen’s genius at work. It’s displayed briefly during the first half of the film in the shape of a pre-historic miniature horse, but let’s face it, it’s the dinosaurs we want to see. And the dinosaurs are a joy to behold, even if they do appear in oddly various hues. Younger audiences brought up on CGI extravaganzas may baulk at the quaintly jerky stop-motion puppetry, but there’s a warmth and charm that only these type of effects can bring.

The transfer is pristine but the optical process that Harryhausen had to employ to combine his stop-motion with the live action footage is starkly evident. However, even though you can see how it’s being done, it’s done so well as not to matter. The 2.1 channel audio is crystal clear, from Morris’ stirring score to the ear-splitting roar of the dinosaurs.

The extras are sparse to say the least. Return to the Valley is a scant eight-minute interview with Harryhausen, there’s a minute-long Harryhausen anecdote about his daughter’s involvement in the film and a trailer. The package does come with four art cards, a DVD disc and a digital download, but more in-depth documentaries and making-offs would have been preferable.

THE VALLEY OF THE GWANGI (1969) / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: JIM O’CONNOLLY / SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM BAST / STARRING: JAMES FRANCISCUS, GILA GOLAN, RICHARD CARLSON / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW (HMV EXCLUSIVE)

Christian Jones

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