Nobody in the movie business wants to make westerns besides Quentin Tarantino and nobody wants to watch them (unless they’re made by Tarantino). Also, there’s just not enough dinosaur films being made either. Yeah, we got Jurassic World two years ago, but that’s just because it was part of the famed franchise. So I’ve proposed a solution to both of those problems: just watch The Valley of Gwangi, because it has both genres in one movie. I’d even support a remake of this! It’s a movie where cowboys lasso dinosaurs. Who wouldn’t want to see that?
Unlike movies that mesh genres to the point where it’s almost indistinguishable, The Valley of Gwangi separates them first before bringing them together. It starts with the western part: In Mexico, a man named Carlos (Gustavo Rojo) has given struggling circus star T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) an act that might save her show: El Diablo! Who is El Diablo? He’s a prehistoric horse! However, this information gets to her former lover, successful cowboy Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus). Kirby then enlists local paleontologist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith) to help him find more where Diablo came from, so they let Diablo loose and follow him.
This doesn’t go down well with T.J. and her crew, so they pursue Kirby and Bromley. The chase doesn’t end well for any of them, as they all get stuck in the “Forbidden Valley” (Creative, huh?). They are terrorized by several dinosaurs, but none terrorizes them more than “Gwangi”, a T-Rex. It couldn’t have terrified them for long, because they decide that Gwangi would make a great addition to their show. Gwangi doesn’t think so, so in King Kong fashion, he wreaks havoc on the town until he’s burnt to death inside a cathedral.
Despite its B monster movie credentials, The Valley of Gwangi is quite innovative, and not just in the interesting genre meshing. Most dinosaur films are about people finding the creatures when they stumble across a lone, uncharted island; the Forbidden Valley meanwhile is located on the same continent, not far away from civilization. It takes them a while to get there, and unfortunately, the time in the Forbidden Valley is too short; the dinosaur sequences function more as a “greatest hits” montage. The famous scene where they lasso Gwangi isn’t even that riveting; it’s exciting in concept, but it would have helped if the director employed moving shots and faster cutting. Don’t just dismiss that criticism as me being a millenial moviegoer; The Wild Bunch came out the same year and used similar techniques!
The stop-motion animation of the dinosaurs is fantastic; it’s very fluid, and blends seamlessly between stop-motion and puppetry. If it wasn’t for the human actors, I would’ve risen the acting rating to a 3, and that’s not tongue in cheek! The prehistoric horse is quite remarkable in particular; it’s definitely emotional to hear the horse’s whines when it gets captured. I don’t want to say that the human actors are bad though; James Franciscus is Indiana Jones before Indiana Jones, but they’re just typical B movie actors; they’re not good enough to sustain the plot before the dinosaurs show up.
It should be no surprise that The Valley of Gwangi is the dinosaur version of King Kong, and it rips it off to varying degrees. For example, King Kong is revered as a spiritual figure by the people of Skull Island. In this movie, Gwangi is thought of in the same way, but it’s by a remote group of gypsies, so it doesn’t carry the same weight. Gwangi wreaking havoc on the city is done well though; the most effective part of the rampage is when Gwangi is chasing Tuck and T.J. through a cathedral. There’s no music; just the sounds of footsteps and growling.
Also, there’s a really weird, sadistic scene where Carlos is attacking a Pteranodon and break its neck. You can hear the snapping too. Very strange and unsettling.
Unfortunately, no one saw this movie when it came out in 1969; I’m guessing people were more interested in going to Woodstock and dropping acid than watching a dinosaur movie. Shame on them! Steven Spielberg must have seen it (he wasn’t a hippie anyway), because there’s a lot of connections between this and his movies. The relationship between Tuck and T.J. is very similar to the one between Indiana and Marion; Tuck walked out on her and T.J. resents him for that. Also, the way the T-Rex eats the Gallimimus in Jurassic Park is very similar to how Gwangi eats one here.
So if you’re like me and you don’t like westerns, I’d say this is a good movie to watch! Here’s a trailer to see if you actually care enough to watch it.