Monday, March 1, 2021

Ray Harryhausen's Valley of Gwangi

Gwangi: The star of the movie!
Made in 1969, The Valley of Gwangi is one of those movies that seems to improve with age. Its far-out “cowboys vs. dinosaur” premise has always held a certain appeal. However, repeat viewings have allowed me to truly appreciate the little touches that made special effects genius Ray Harryhausen the greatest stop-motion animator in motion picture history.

Set in Mexico at the turn of the century, Gwangi stars James Franciscus as Tuck Kirby, a hustler always eager to make a quick buck. He arrives in town to convince his former girlfriend T.J. (Gila Golan) to sell her “diving horse” to Wild Bill Hickok. Tuck thinks T.J. needs the money to save her Wild West show. However, T.J. eventually reveals that she has a new money-making attraction: a miniature horse dubbed El Diablo. The creature was found in the secret Forbidden Valley—one of those places that warrants warnings from wise old gypsy women.

Tuck befriends a paleontologist (Laurence Naismith), who reveals that El Diablo is an eohippus, a prehistoric ancestor of horses. While he and Tuck argue on El Diablo’s future, the gypsies kidnap the little horse and return him to the Forbidden Valley with T.J.’s men in pursuit. When everyone arrives in the now no-longer-secret valley, they discover a prehistoric world that has defied time. It’s “ruled” by a ferocious T-Rex dubbed Gwangi. When the carnivorous creature is injured following a cave collapse, Tuck decides to capture it. After all, Gwangi could be the biggest show attraction in the world!
A wire was used for the rope when animating the lasso.
If a connection between The Valley of Gwangi and King Kong seems obvious, that’s because the former was originally conceived by Willis O’Brien, the stop motion animator that brought Kong to life. O’Brien, who later became Harryhausen’s mentor, did a significant amount of pre-production work on the project, then titled The Valley of Mists, in the early 1940s. Unfortunately, RKO shelved the project, allegedly because its executives thought the public was no longer interested in dinosaurs. O’Brien’s premise did serve as a basis for a low-budget American-Mexican production called The Beast of Hollow Mountain in 1956, which was quickly forgotten. A decade later, when Harryhausen and his production partner Charles Schneer were exploring ideas for a new film, Ray remembered the abandoned Valley of Mists.

The Valley of Gwangi gets off to a leisurely start before transitioning to 45 minutes of almost non-stop cowboys vs. dinosaurs action. The film's highlight is the sequence where Tuck and the gang try to lasso the T-Rex. It took Harryhausen five months to animate the scene, carefully matching footage of the actors throwing ropes at a pole mounted in a jeep with the stop-motion movements of his dinosaur model. To "animate" the rope, Harryhausen used wire--again synchronizing it to match the actual lassos being thrown in the live footage.
The T-Rex takes on a Styracosaurus while cowboys watch.
For a scene where Gwangi confronts an elephant, Harryhausen originally intended to use real footage of an elephant. When the filmmakers were unable to procure a pachyderm on location (the film was shot in Spain), Harryhausen went ahead and animated the elephant, too.

While it's true that Gwangi lacks the expressive emotions that made King Kong special, one must realize that the T-Rex wasn't known for sensitivity. On the other hand, Harryhausen adds the little details that make the dinosaur seem real. My favorite is a quick shot in which Gwangi, seen in the distance, pauses to swipe at his nose with one of his little "arms."

Gila Golan and James Franciscus.
In an special effects-driven movie like Gwangi, the human actors are there to basically move the story. James Franciscus is an unlikely choice for a Western; his well-groomed looks just don't seem to fit (at least he looked scruffier in Beneath the Planet of the Apes). Still, he's a capable actor and thus pulls off the part of the hustler who eventually realizes he's taken on more than he can handle. Laurence Naismith adds some class to the film, playing the kind of British gentlemen that he specialized in. It's hard to judge Gila Golan's thespian skills as the Israeli actress was dubbed after the producers determined her accent was too strong.

The film's star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen. The Valley of Gwangi doesn't rank with his best work (e.g., Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), but it's a diverting little picture with some incredible stop-motion special effects.


  1. If you've got a couple of fistfuls of popcorn you need to get rid of, you can do a lot worse than pair it up with Valley of the Gwangi.

  2. Fun Facts about Gila Golan:
    Valley Of Gwangi was her final film role.
    Later in 1969, Gila Golan married a wealthy American business magnate named Matthew Rosenhaus, and they remained married through to his passing in 1980.

    If the name Matthew Rosenhaus sounds familiar, it's probably for one of three reasons:

    - Rosenhaus made his fortune manufacturing and selling Geritol ("Feel Stronger FAST!"), which formed the basis of Pharmaceuticals Inc, the sponsor of the infamous '50s TV game Twenty-One.
    (Side Note: in the movie Quiz Show, a fictionalized version of Rosenhaus was played by Martin Scorcese - but that's another story ...)

    - In the early '70s, Rosenhaus's company, now called the J. B. Williams Co., underwrote Lawrence Welk's venture into post-network syndication, which kept his show going for more than a decade, making a fortune for all concerned (Welk's family remained close to Matty and Gila Rosenhaus all their lives).

    - Circa 1977, Rosenhaus, who'd become a major stockholder in Columbia Pictures, took the side of David Begelman during the latter gentleman's embezzlement scandal, preventing the studio from firing him outright (very complicated story, which is how Sony eventually got control of Columbia); Matty Rosenhaus died while it was all still being litigated, leaving Gila Golan one of Hollywood's wealthiest widows (which she remains to the present day, at age 80).

    Just thought you'd like to know ...

    1. Fascinating information, Mike. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks for an enjoyable return trip to the valley. As a kids this was my favorite '60s dinosaur film (slightly above the cheesy but entertaining "Dinosaurus!") because it didn't shoehorn cavemen in with the dinos.

    One point of contention over the years, though, was Gwangi's paleontological classification. His three-fingered claws and head size would normally mark him as a Jurassic-era Allosaurus, and O'Brien's original script listed him as same. Harryhausen went with a T. Rex body build (based on a Charles R. Knight painting) for Gwangi's model, and while I don't think its species was ever mentioned in the film, it's been listed as both Allosaur and Tyrannosaur over the years. Maybe Gwangi was the product of a "mixed marriage."

    1. The morphology of these creatures is dated, but it would have been fun to see what Harryhausen could have done with them in their more modern appearances, well outside the Jurassic Park sphere of influence.

      There must have been a festival of "Lost World" films screened somewhere and some time. There are more than enough to fill a week's viewing, and there should still be a decent audience for that kind of cinema.

    2. Ron, I'd be there for a Lost World Film Festival! That sounds like grand fun.

  4. Ray Harryhausen has long been a favorite animator of mine. His genius contributed so much to early motion picture special effects and animation. Most people know him for his work with fantasy and monster movies, but I still remember the children's fairy tale cartoons of his that we watched early Saturday morning on local TV stations, before the network shows started, or on 16mm film in an assembly in school on a rainy day.
    I recently posted 5 of those classic cartoons and while they are different in tone than the work you are more familiar with, they still show Ray's attention to detail and expressiveness in faces and body gestures. If you're interested, you can see these Ray Harryhausen gems at There is a total of about 50 minutes of Ray's genius on that page for your watching. Pay close attention to the faces and how expressive he makes each moment!

    1. I watched those last year when Amazon Prime Video had them. I agree that they're a fascinating preview of what was to come.

  5. This seems to say it all: "The film's star, of course, is Ray Harryhausen." Thanks for putting this on my radar – I know I'll enjoy every moment.