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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Another mouthwatering effects set piece is Gwangi’s fight with the Styracosaurus. Lots of roaring and biting! I love stop-motion dino battles!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!)
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…
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…
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…
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…
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.
McCarthy produced several preliminary design sketches that explored possible compositions for the Gwangi poster…
Let’s check out a whole bunch of Gwangi posters now…
Here are just some of the bobby cards for the film…
ART INSPIRED BY THE VALLEY OF GWANGI
Here are some cool artworks by illustrators who were inspired by the movie…
Here are some Gwangi-tastic illustrations by the very prolific and very talented artist Jamie Chase…
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’
Pages from the Gwangi pressbook…
VARIOUS BITS AND PIECES
Here’s a bunch of different Gwangi-related items…
Finally, here’s one more look at Gwangi in action…
3 thoughts on “The Valley of Gwangi (1969)”
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Fantastic article on a great movie!
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Cheers. Yes, THE VALLEY OF GWANGI is a great stop-motion fantasy flick. Ray Harryhausen rocked!