The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Gwangi snags a cowboy! Yum yum!
Gwangi snags a cowboy! Yum yum!

Directed by Jim O’Connolly, produced by Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen, written by William Bast and starring James Franciscus, Richard Carlson, Laurence Naismith, Gila Golan, Curtis Arden and Freda Jackson.

'Cowboys battle monsters in the lost world of Forbidden Valley': how can any self-respecting monster movie fan resist that tag line?!
‘Cowboys battle monsters in the lost world of Forbidden Valley’: how can any self-respecting monster movie fan resist that tag line?!

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is a dino-tastic story set in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century. It follows the adventures of rodeo circus owner T.J. Breckenridge (a dubbed Gila Golan), her former beau Tuck Kirby (Franciscus), a British paleontologist (Naismith), a Mexican boy called Lope (Arden) and various cowboy members of the circus, as they find themselves in peril in the Forbidden Valley, a rocky zone that is full of prehistoric creatures! Woot!

Gwangi won't be caged for long!
Gwangi won’t be caged for long!

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is a vibrant monster-fantasy-western that features stop-motion effects courtesy of the great Ray Harryhausen, a rousing score by Jerome Moross and likeable performances from the likes of James Franciscus and Richard Carlson.

Pteranodon attack!
Pteranodon attack!

Plot-wise, the movie is a lost world adventure with a western twist, which then transitions into a King Kong-style finale, where the titular dinosaur Gwangi is brought back to civilisation to be displayed at Breckenridge’s circus but, as always happens in these tales, the beast escapes and runs amok in the local Mexican town.

Gwangi on the rampage, reaches the big cathedral...
Gwangi on the rampage! The dinosaur reaches the big cathedral…
...and there's a cat-and-mouse encounter inside the building, as Tuck takes on the giant predator...
…and there’s a cat-and-mouse encounter inside the building, as Tuck takes on the giant predator…
...and eventually Gwangi is burnt to death, as the cathedral catches fire and starts to collapse
…and eventually Gwangi is burnt to death, as the cathedral catches fire and starts to collapse
'The strangest round up of all as cowboys battle monsters!'
‘The strangest round up of all as cowboys battle monsters!’

Harryhausen’s effects are definitely the movie’s main selling point, and for this production we get to see an Eohippus, a Pteranodon, an Ornithomimus, a huge Allosaurus (Gwangi) and a Styracosaurus roaming across the screen. A stop-motion model of an elephant is also used when the pachyderm fights Gwangi during the finale.

Ornithomimus
Ornithomimus
Styracosaurus
Styracosaurus
Dinosaur versus elephant!
Dinosaur versus elephant!

The real stand-out moment is the roping sequence, when the cowboy heroes attempt to capture Gwangi using lassos. This is a wonderful action scene, showcasing Harryhausen’s top-notch stop-motion skills.

The roping scene rocks!
The roping scene rocks!

Another mouthwatering effects set piece is Gwangi’s fight with the Styracosaurus. Lots of roaring and biting! I love stop-motion dino battles!

Dinosaurs duking it out!
Dinosaurs duking it out!

Some earlier scenes with El Diablo the Eohippus, a tiny prehistoric horse, are also memorable, with Harryhausen putting just as much effort into these quieter, sweeter moments as he does with the more bombastic dinosaur encounters later on.

He's a sweet lil' thing, ain't he?
He’s a cute lil’ thing, ain’t he?
Tuck & T.J. with El Diablo the Eohippus
Tuck & T.J. with El Diablo the Eohippus
The Eohippus says 'hi' to its much bigger descendant
The Eohippus says ‘hi’ to its much bigger descendant

I’m not a fan of the solid-latex model of Gwangi that’s used for the scenes where the dinosaur knocks itself out while trying to push its way through the narrow gap to escape Forbidden Valley. I think Harryhausen himself was never pleased with these shots, as this inflexible model definitely has no ‘life’ to it: it looks especially stiff in the shots of Gwangi lying unconscious on the ground. Harryhausen had done similar scenes in his previous dinosaur adventure, ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., for instance, where Ray presented us with a marvellous shot of a dying Ceratosaurus lying on the ground, with its belly inflating and deflating as it desperately tries to keep breathing. So it’s such a shame a similar effect couldn’t have been used in GWANGI, though I’m sure Harryhausen was under a lot of budget and time constraints (but the Styracosaurus model in GWANGI was equipped with an inflatable air ‘bladder’ to simulate breathing).

Gwangi’s skin colour changes a few times over the course of the movie because, as there was so much animation to do, Harryhausen didn’t have enough time to do proper colour testing, so Gwangi ranges from grey to blue to purple-ish. I actually don’t think these colour changes are distracting and I’m sure I never spotted them when I viewed the movie as a kid.

I would've liked more atmospheric matte paintings like this one
I would’ve liked more atmospheric matte paintings like this one

The full-scale Pteranodon model and Gwangi head, used for close-ups, are not as effective as their stop-motion counterparts, but I’ll stop quibbling now and reiterate that THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is a colourful, entertaining fantasy flick, replete with monsters, gypsy curses, a belligerent circus elephant and even a dangerous-bull-in-a-bullring scene!

Trying to break the Pteranodon's neck!
Trying to break the Pteranodon’s neck!
Angry gypsy folk
Angry gypsy folk

Shot in Spain, which stands in for Mexico, the movie utilises the odd rock formations of La Ciudad Encantada, a distinctive geological site near the city of Cuenca (which is also featured in 1982’s CONAN THE BARBARIAN), to create the prehistoric vistas of the Forbidden Valley.

This shot features some of La Ciudad Encantada's mushroom-shaped rock formations
This shot features some of La Ciudad Encantada’s mushroom-shaped rock formations
Nom-nom-nom!
Nom-nom-nom!

Jerome Moross, the composer who worked on such films and TV series as THE BIG COUNTRY, GUNSMOKE, WAGON TRAIN and HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL, provides a soundtrack that really injects a thrilling, full-blooded western vibe into GWANGI. It’s a great score, with a main theme dripping with urgency (that I happen to be listening to right now as I write this!)

Here's some free advice, cowboy-dudes: don't use a blanket to ward off a vicious Allosaurus!
Here’s some free advice, cowboy-dudes: don’t use a blanket to ward off a vicious Allosaurus!
I was never quite sure why the cowboy decided to spear the herbivore, rather than the more dangerous predator...
I was never quite sure why the cowboy decided to spear the herbivore, rather than the more dangerous predator…

The scene where Gwangi lunges into view and snaps-up the fast-running Ornithomimus in its jaws was later recreated in JURASSIC PARK, this time featuring a Tyrannosaurus Rex plunging into shot to gobble up a fast-running Gallimimus.

Anyway, this is a Ray Harryhausen movie about cowboys venturing into a lost world of dinosaurs, so of course I will always love this movie!

THE WILLIS O’BRIEN CONNECTION
This film was actually a project that Willis O’Brien tried to develop, many decades earlier. It was titled THE VALLEY OF THE MISTS and it had been in preproduction at RKO for a while but, like a lot of O’Brien’s projects, it unfortunately fell through.

Here are some storyboards drawn by Willis O’Brien…

Willis O'Brien storyboard
Willis O’Brien storyboard
Willis O'Brien storyboard
Willis O’Brien storyboard

Here’s a hand-filled report (by O’Brien) on a printed RKO Radio Pictures form detailing visual effects requirements for an action sequence titled ‘Edge of Cliff’, which would’ve been featured in his iteration of the Gwangi movie…

RKO Radio Pictures form
RKO Radio Pictures form

Even though Willis O’Brien’s Gwangi movie was never made, some of his old production materials came into Ray Harryhausen’s possession and he proposed making his own version of the film to his producer/business partner Charles Schneer, who agreed that it should be their next project. And so THE VALLEY OF GWANGI finally went into production. Hooray! Though, as some people have pointed out, it’s a shame that O’Brien, who put a lot of effort into conceptualising the original Gwangi concept, didn’t receive a credit in the 1969 movie.

RAY HARRYHAUSEN CONCEPT ART
Here are some really gorgeous examples of Ray’s well-rendered concept art for his movie…

Styracosaurus versus Gwangi
Styracosaurus versus Gwangi
Cowboy chases an Ornithomimus
Cowboy chases an Ornithomimus
In Ray's concept drawing for the pteranodon attack he drew it with accurate-looking pterosaur wings. In the movie his stop-motion model had Ray's stylised bat-like wings.
In Ray’s concept drawing for the pteranodon attack he drew the flying reptile with accurate-looking pterosaur wings. In the movie his stop-motion model was equipped with stylised bat-like wings.
Rays's hand-drawn scale concept for the Pteranodon features Ray's signature bat-like wing design
Rays’s hand-drawn scale concept drawing for the Pteranodon features Ray’s signature bat-like wing design
Rays concept drawing for Gwangi, with cowboys and a horse shown  for scale
Ray’s concept drawing for Gwangi, with cowboys and a horse shown for scale

Interestingly, long before Ray Harryhausen made his Gwangi movie, he actually painted this scene, way back in the 1930s. The painting’s title is: ‘Allosaurus attacking a cowboy’. So, I guess Ray was destined to make THE VALLEY OF GWANGI one day…

Lovely painting!
Lovely painting!

POSTERS FOR THE MOVIE
Uber-talented artist Frank McCarthy, responsible for vivid, astounding poster illustrations for DUEL AT DIABLO, THE DIRTY DOZEN, YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE, KRAKATOA EAST OF JAVA, MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, WHERE EAGLES DARE and many more, produced the striking artwork that adorns almost all of the poster versions for THE VALLEY OF GWANGI.

Here’s McCarthy’s illustration without the poster blurb. It’s a glorious piece of promotional art that exaggerates the scale of Gwangi. The mounted cowboys, dwarfed by the size of the mega-Gwangi, ride their steeds away from the dinosaur and gallop past supersized skulls, adding a lot of dynamism to the composition. A couple of scared, attractive women and the burning cathedral (from the end of the movie) add extra flavour to the artwork.

Stunning stuff!
Stunning stuff!

McCarthy produced several preliminary design sketches that explored possible compositions for the Gwangi poster…

This Frank McCarthy preliminary artwork explores showing Gwangi from a reverse angle
This Frank McCarthy preliminary artwork explores the idea of showing Gwangi from a reverse angle
This rough prelim sketch depicts a very upright-looking Gwangi
This is the Frank McCarthy preliminary artwork design that was chosen for the poster. 'This is it' is even written on the design!
This is the Frank McCarthy preliminary artwork design that was chosen for the poster. ‘This is it’ is even written on the design!

Let’s check out a whole bunch of Gwangi posters now…

US three sheet poster
Italian poster. This puts a scantily-clad female at the front of the action. Those Italians!
Italian poster. This puts a scantily-clad female at the front of the action. Those Italians!
Japanese B2 poster
Japanese B2 poster
German poster
German poster
US six sheet poster
US six sheet poster
Japanese STB poster
Japanese STB poster
UK quad poster
UK quad poster
Belgian poster
Belgian poster
French grande poster
French grande poster
UK quad double bill poster
UK quad double bill poster
US half sheet poster
US half sheet poster
Italian locandina poster
Italian locandina poster
Australian daybill poster
Australian daybill poster
French moyenne poster
French moyenne poster
US insert poster
US insert poster
Poster from Argentina
Poster from Argentina
US window card
US one sheet
US one sheet
Italian poster. This one actually doesn't use Frank McCarthy's dinosaur illustration: it features a spike-backed carnosaur (cribbed from a comic book)
Italian poster. This one actually doesn’t use Frank McCarthy’s dinosaur illustration: it features a spike-backed carnosaur instead (which was cribbed from a comic book)
A much more recent Mondo poster for the movie, designed by Mike Saputo
A much more recent Mondo poster for the movie, designed by Mike Saputo
Poster for a screening of the movie by the Bristol Bad Film Club (I'm sure the club didn't think this movie was actually bad!)
Poster for a screening of the movie by the Bristol Bad Film Club (I’m sure the club didn’t think this movie was actually bad!)

LOBBY CARDS
Here are just some of the bobby cards for the film…

Lobby card
Lobby card
Lobby card. Laurence Naismith is just about to get squashed!
Lobby card. Laurence Naismith is just about to get squashed!
Lobby card. Dino fight!!!
Lobby card
Lobby card
Lobby card. Two big prehistoric beasts have a face-off!
Lobby card. Two big prehistoric beasts have a face-off!
Lobby card. Gwangi gobbles up an Ornithomimus!
Lobby card. Gwangi gobbles up an Ornithomimus!

ART INSPIRED BY THE VALLEY OF GWANGI
Here are some cool artworks by illustrators who were inspired by the movie…

Gwangi-inspired cover art for the 1983 May issue of 'Fantasy Book' magazine, by Alan Gutierrez
Gwangi-inspired cover art for the 1983 May issue of ‘Fantasy Book’ magazine, by Alan Gutierrez

Here are some Gwangi-tastic illustrations by the very prolific and very talented artist Jamie Chase…

Tuck encounters Gwangi
Tuck encounters Gwangi
It's lasso time!
It’s lasso time!

William Stout…

William Stout's rendition of the Gwangi vs Styracosaurus battle
William Stout’s rendition of the Gwangi vs Styracosaurus battle

Illustrator & designer Ross Persichetti produced some illustrations, featured on ArtStation, that were inspired by THE VALLEY OF GWANGI. Ross’ faux Gwangi sequel was called ‘Return to the Valley of Gwangi’

Gwangi chases a stagecoach!
Gwangi chases a stagecoach!
Another faux 'Return to the Valley of Gwangi' concept illustration by Ross Persichetti
Another faux ‘Return to the Valley of Gwangi’ concept illustration by Ross Persichetti

PRESSBOOK
Pages from the Gwangi pressbook…

'This is not 50,000,000 years ago... this is today!'
‘This is not 50,000,000 years ago… this is today!’
Page depicting various posters and accessories
Page depicting various posters and accessories

VARIOUS BITS AND PIECES
Here’s a bunch of different Gwangi-related items…

Dell movie adaptation comic cover
Dell movie adaptation comic cover
A page from 'The Monster Times' magazine
A page from ‘The Monster Times’ magazine
VHS cover
VHS cover
Hungarian DVD cover
Hungarian DVD cover
UK DVD sleeve
UK DVD sleeve
German black and white ad
German black and white ad
A shot of Ray Harryhausen with his clever set-up for the Gwangi vs elephant fight scene
A shot of Ray Harryhausen with his clever set-up for the Gwangi vs elephant fight scene

Finally, here’s one more look at Gwangi in action…

I love how Gwangi stops to scratch his nose! Such a great touch from Ray, that adds more 'life' to the animated star of the movie
I love how Gwangi stops to scratch his nose! Such a great touch from Ray, that adds more ‘life’ to the animated star of the movie. It is, of course, also a nice nod from Ray to Willis O’Brien’s dinosaur from KING KONG, which had an itchy snout too.

3 thoughts on “The Valley of Gwangi (1969)”

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