The Valley of Gwangi
U.S.A. / 1969
Directed by James O'Connolly
Starring
James Franciscus
Gina Golan
Richard Carlson
Color / 95 Minutes / G
Format: DVD (R1 - NTSC)
Warner Home Video
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
7
    6   10 = Highest Rating  
SNEAK PREVIEW | DVD Release Date: Oct. 21, 2003
Cowboys 'n' dinosaurs... Yeeeeeehaw!
    It's a real treat to see childhood favorite The Valley of Gwangi finally make it to DVD. The film was badly marketed when theatrically released so the boob tube was the medium by which most people, including your humble correspondent, came to know it. Though its main attraction Ray Harryhausen's wonderful stop-motion dinosaurs look dated in this age of CGI, Gwangi remains a great Saturday afternoon flick with which to stuff your face full of microwave popcorn.
    Basically
it's a rehash of King Kong but the western spin on the tale gives it freshness. In 1900 Mexico a traveling Wild West show comes into possession of a dog-sized miniature horse that the show's female owner, T.J. Breckenridge (Our Man Flint's Gina Golan), hopes will reverse her sagging economic fortunes. While she rekindles a romance with an old flame, entrepreneur Tuck Kirby (Beneath the Planet of the Apes' James Franciscus), British paleontologist Professor Bromley (a hammy Laurence Naismith) and gypsy witch-woman Zorina (Freda Jackson, Brides of Dracula) plot to steal the miracle horse. Zorina wants the creature returned to its home in the "Forbidden Valley" to forestall the curse of the "Evil One", Gwangi, from loosing death upon the land. The professor's motive is to follow the gypsies in order to discover its place of origin. He alone recognizes the tiny horse for what it really is an Eohippus, a living member of a species that supposedly died out 50 million years ago. And where there's one Eohippus there's bound to be more.
    When the theft is discovered Tuck rides out after the gypsies; T.J. and her foreman/ringmaster Champ Connors ('50s sci-fi leading man Richard Carlson) saddle up a posse and join the pursuit. They track the thieves to the Forbidden Valley, where they stumble upon a prehistoric world straight out of an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. After a brush with a hungry pterodactyl (who prefers Mexican for dinner) the cowboys meet Gwangi himself, a reptilian leviathan with very big teeth. (It's never mentioned in the film but the beast is supposedly an Allosaurus, smaller cousin to the T-Rex.) Plans to capture some of the valley's fauna for the show are instantly forgotten as the group scrambles to escape with their lives. But a lucky break turns the tables and presents T.J. and Company with the ultimate prize. The mighty Gwangi will doubtless be the greatest attraction in the history of show business... provided he doesn't break out of his cage and go rampaging through town, that is. That would be very bad for business.
    It's all quite old-fashioned and thoroughly enjoyable. Who with an imagination could resist the combination of cowpokes and creatures that time forgot? Today's kids might have their patience tested by the leisurely setup and romantic subplot the first big monster doesn't appear until halfway in and Gwangi not until the 50-minute mark but the ten-year old inside me had a good time with the film. Once the characters arrive at the Forbidden Valley it really picks up speed; the energetic score by composer Jerome Moross (The War Lord) greatly enlivens the action. Harryhausen's wizardry is as delightful as always. For Gwangi he created some of the screen's most indelible dinosaur imagery. Over three decades later his amazingly articulated stop-motion monsters still have the power to enchant. Where the effects show their age is at the seams and on the margins, specifically the split-screen and matte shots. No matter. An exciting dinosaur rodeo courtesy of Ray Harryhausen, set to a rousing 'Marlboro Man on Mysterious Island' score... Here the old cliché is most apt: it's fun for the whole family.

Valley Of Gwangi is being released on Warner Home Video DVD in tandem with two other stop-motion monsteramas, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Black Scorpion. It appears minimal restoration was done to the print. There are speckles here and there, though no major damage; some scenes are quite grainy and an irritating flutter crops up from time to time in some of the outdoor sequences. (With a Harryhausen film one must always take grain as a given it's a byproduct of the effects technique.) Colors are quite vivid, however, and there's a definite improvement in the level of discernible detail. (Along with some noticeable edge enhancement, I might add.) So while the video quality is a tad disappointing, it's a significant improvement over the old VHS edition. And the matted 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer does allow us to see the film in its original theatrical presentation. As for sound, the mono audio track gets the job done without any complaints.
    Warner was good enough to include extras on the disc beyond the usual trailer. The theatrical promo for Gwangi is provided, of course, but also those for Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Black Scorpion, and Clash of the Titans. Return To The Valley is an 8-minute featurette composed of interviews with Harryhausen, who gives a thumbnail sketch of the film's origin and production, and a number of special effects artists from today's generation who explain the influence the film has had on their work. (A sizable portion of the featurette focuses on a single set-piece from Gwangi, the extraordinarily complex and difficult dinosaur lassoing sequence.)
    You can also find a hidden Easter Egg on the Special Features menu by highlighting Gwangi's head. (Harryhausen provides an amusing anecdote involving his young daughter, a model of Gwangi and a memorable shopping trip to Herrod's.)
10/16/03
UPDATE This DVD went OOP in 2008; still-shrinkwrapped copies are going for almost 100 bucks these days.
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