Ray Harryhausen died May 7th, 2013, at the age of 91. This is one of the things he left behind.
The year is 1969. America's long love affair with western movies is ending, and its tolerance for rubber creature features is waning as well. A middle-aged special effects technician named Ray Harryhausen has put together a film that, unfortunately, falls squarely in the middle of these two genres; a tale of cowboys and dinosaurs, of lassoed monsters and breakneck chases across the dusty desert. It is released to little fanfare and rapidly sinks into obscurity, just as its fellow westerns and monster movies have done. It's about to be the 70's, after all. America has weightier things on its mind. But The Valley of Gwangi, as it turns out, has charms of its own; charms enough to keep it from disappearing completely into pop culture oblivion.
Our story begins somewhere south of the Mexican border, around the dawn of the 20th century. T.J Breckenridge, a young woman of surpassing loveliness and somewhat wooden affect, is in deep water. Her traveling western circus has fallen on hard times, but T.J is still doing her best to make a go of it, touring small Mexican towns who are sure to be entranced by their increasingly shopworn acts. But circumstance throws two different twists at this fragile state of affairs. The first comes in the form of the dapper, fast talking Tucker, an independent operator (and T.J's former fiance) looking to buy up bits of the Wild West show's act. The other is altogether stranger; a mysterious little horse from a forbidden valley off in the desert, which has the potential to save the struggling circus.
Not everyone is so thrilled, however. The town's Roma (which, incidentally, are not as out of place as you might think) are deeply worried by the appearance of the tiny horse. They are the ones who declared the forbidden valley off-limits, in fear of the ferocious and vindictive spirit that guards it--a spirit known only as Gwangi. If they don't get the little horse back to the valley soon, their matriarch warns, then the wrath of Gwangi will fall upon them all. So saying, the gypsies steal the Eohippus from T.J's circus and flee, making for the distant mountains that mark the border of the secret valley. Tucker, the Professor, and T.J's crew of carnies all race after them, vying with each other for who can capture the precious little horse first.
But what waits for them beyond the mountains is far more impressive than any horse, tiny or not...
The Valley of Gwangi is clearly a direct descendant of King Kong. The requisite check marks are ticked off; superstitious locals? Yep. A prehistoric monster with a savage name? Check. A public escape, rampage and subsequent poignant death? Of course. However, it comes by the similarity honestly; Willis O’Brien himself, the stop-motion guru behind The Lost World and King Kong, came up with a rough treatment for the idea that he never managed to get off the ground.
|Copyright Willis O'Brien|
O'Brien's conception of Gwangi was apparently deeply old fashioned, as the above concept art attests, and not many details of what he had in mind have survived. Harryhausen, a protégée of O’Brien’s, was the one who got the film made, and he himself was hugely influenced by King Kong. The finished film is thus a union of two fairly similar sensibilities, and it shows.
|Copyright Ray Harryhausen|
Both Kong and Gwangi fit comfortably into a tradition you might call the “lost world” narrative; they focus on the discovery of an isolated prehistoric ecosystem, and the immediate consequences to life and limb for bringing a piece of that ecosystem back. Yet while the original Kong played the idea for as much fantastic horror as it could muster, Gwangi is much more understated. The nightmare jungles of Skull Island are replaced by the barren wastes of the desert, and where Kong scaled the heights of Manhattan, Gwangi’s rampage is limited to a little town of white adobe and a cathedral. Kong’s death requires airplanes at the heights of the world. Gwangi is killed by fire and a falling ceiling.
The end result of this is that The Valley of Gwangi feels weirdly believable. Yes, it centers around a lost valley of dinosaurs out in the Mexican desert, but if you’re willing to accept that (and if you’re reading this blog, it’s a good chance that you are) then the central plot of the film is filled with the kind of stumbling and foolishness you’d expect from real people placed in extraordinary circumstances. Guns are useless, for example, against the primeval might of the valley’s inhabitants–until one of the circus cowboys checks the cartridges and discovers, to his consternation, that whomever grabbed the rifles didn't bother to take the blanks out first. The Roma, for their part, are so affected by terror of Gwangi that they attempt to get rid of him as soon as possible–even though that entails freeing him in the middle of a packed stadium.
Even when Gwangi is released onto the dusty streets to wreak havoc, the vast majority of the damage is done by the fleeing crowd, with only a few people falling prey to the dinosaur’s jaws. The whole plot has the feeling of something that could actually have happened; a backwater little disaster unfolding out of the public eye, with no official authority to witness and record it. Unlike Kong, whose very public rampage and death must have shocked the world, the escape and subsequent death of Gwangi the Great seems destined to be ignored. An interesting bit of local folklore, perhaps, or a footnote buried in an obscure text.
Gwangi himself is a fantastic creation. Sculpted over an armature of ball and socket joints, moved minute centimeter by minute centimeter, the flicker of the camera breathes into him unbelievable vitality. Gwangi arrived in theaters in 1969, as the fabled Dinosaur Renaissance was beginning, and in many ways its title character embodies the changing times. While he is shaped in the mode of classic tail dragging carnosaurs, he moves with deceptive speed, trotting and even leaping across the screen. There is little of the reptilian stillness about him: even at rest, his tail slithers and twists in the air, dancing with malignant energy. He snarls and sneers in expressions that don’t quite reach his mad little eyes, his fingers twitching as he contemplates his prey. He could never be mistaken for accurate, now. There’s something vague about the specifics, his form a mix of the tyrannosaur and the allosaur, his tail too flexible, his form too hunched. But it doesn't matter. Gwangi may not look real, but by god, he looks alive.
This was the genius of Ray Harryhausen, of course. He poured his heart and soul into his rubber creations, and it shows; nothing in Gwangi seems as carefully labored over as the creatures of the forbidden valley, and nothing else in the film holds up quite as well. The Styracosaurus is bullish and stubborn, the Pteranodon a flapping menace, the Ornithomimus jumpy and comical. The human actors of the film acquit themselves acceptably, but Harryhausen's creations are indisputably the stars of the show. In a lot of ways, The Valley of Gwangi is representative of Harryhausen's life and work: a solid, unpretentious film, filled with unexpected charms and wonderful special effects. What more fitting tribute to the master could there be?
Ray Harryhausen died May 7th, 2013, at the age of 91. Gwangi, as always, abides.