Having had a long gestation period going back to King Kong creator Willis O’Brien, stop motion wizard Ray Harryhausen breathes life into this western tale of cowboys, a hidden valley and supposedly extinct dinosaurs.
One year shy of his turn in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, James Franciscus lands the starring role here opposite Gila Golan and the two prized Harryhausen creations for this Warner Brothers release, a miniature horse called an Eohippus and Gwangi himself, a vicious Tyrannosaurus. Along the way Harryhausen will treat us to a Pterodactyl and other members of the dinosaur family and even an elephant enters our story from the hand of Ray.
It’s a tried and true plot when a group of gypsies (at least to me that’s what they look) bring back the miniature horse from the forbidden valley against the wishes of an old hag played by Freda Jackson. Miss Jackson is surely one of the premiere old hags in film history having brought me nightmares years ago thanks to her old hag performance in Brides of Dracula for Hammer in 1960. Here under haggish makeup she warns all of the curse of Gwangi and if one has seen the film poster going into the theater back in the day, you’ll know exactly who she means.
Introducing our principles, we have monster film veteran Richard Carlson who in 1954 went head to head with a certain Gillman as a travelling circus/wild west show owner. Miss Golan as his star attraction and Franciscus as his former associate and of course, Golan’s former lover who comes back into their lives with a get rich quick proposal. Franciscus is soon to realize that his ideas pale in comparison to the untold riches that the miniature horse in Golan’s possession can bring them. The love hate relationship between our young lovers leads to the best line of the film. When cornered Franciscus in true cowboy fashion offers up this beauty, “Getting married is like being a horse all tied up in a corral.”
Our fourth lead role is played by another old time vet, Laurence Naismith as professor/archaeologist digging about for bones and looking to prove some theories that match up with Darwin’s. One look at the little horse and he wants to know where it came from and to lead an expedition there.
Now we can borrow heavily from the essential plot of Kong. The cowboys and cowgirl head to the hidden valley of Gwangi and tangle with an array of Harryhausen creations and who knows, might even catch the title character and like Kong, bring him back to western civilization and make a fortune on a world wide tour. Care to take a guess how that idea works out?
Gwangi seems to be the one film on Harryhausen’s resume that appears all but forgotten to the general public and I have to wonder if that’s the fault of Warner Brothers. Yes they’ve made the title available on home video including the new Warner Archive blu ray I’ve recently acquired but because of rights holders, it’s never featured in box sets of Harryhausen’s work that continuously find their way into the market. Just recently I’ve scored the Sinbad set from Indicator and see that they’ve another set of Ray’s work soon to follow. In the past I’ve snagged DVD sets via Columbia and blu ray’s thru Twilight Time releasing.
Perhaps the better question is, should Gwangi be a better known film? The answer is obviously yes but I’d like to add I say that because of my love for all things Harryhausen. His work here is once again masterful and if you have any idea of how stop motion animation is created, then you’ll know that the time involved in creating the effects is unbelievable. The scene where the cowboys rope Gwangi in an attempt to take him down like a steer is perhaps the film’s major highlight. On the flip side, I always find myself wanting to or perhaps wishing is a better word that I liked the film as a whole more than I actually do. Offer me a choice between this and the fantasy worlds of Sinbad and I’m off and sailing on another voyage in search for the Eye of the Tiger with Caroline Munro or Jane Seymour at my side.
Maybe it’s because I love the western genre itself so much that I’m a purist and have a hard time introducing fantasy into the western in general. One has to admit it’s not a mixture we see all that often. Cowboys and Aliens, Curse of the Undead or how about the all time low, Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. Compared to those three titles, I guess Gwangi rides high though I’m not overly fond of James O’Connolly’s choppy directing. It should come as no surprise that the real star of the film is Gwangi or Harryhausen if you prefer and the dinosaur’s final battle with Franciscus is so seamlessly put together it’s not only a joy to behold but an exciting finale to the film. Battling Gwangi and facing off with the Apes more or less immortalized Franciscus in the world of fantasy films and Miss Golan who is quite obviously dubbed here had previously starred opposite Jimmy Coburn in Our Man Flint would retire from films following this hybrid western/fantasy.
If you can find this one from Harryhausen and his long time producer pal, Charles H. Schneer, give it a go and marvel at the world Ray blessed us with. If you’ve had a chance to see it already, how do you think it compares to the other fantasy films and worlds brought to us by the producing team?
Now if I could just snag that original one sheet for my personal collection.