The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Okay, I’ll admit it.

I just love this film. A lot.  Probably far more than it deserves.

And as this is one of Ray Harryhausen’s best films, that’s already quite a bit.

I’m not sure he had a finer moment as an animator than the scene where lariat twirling cowboys go up against a dinosaur.  It’s as incredible a piece of work as he ever attempted, integrating real horses and cowboys — and real lassoes —  with a tiny, table-top model.

Cowboys and dinosaurs.  There’s something nearly perfect about the idea.  Yeah, we know this was one of Willis O’Brien’s dream projects — and that his film, The Beast of Hollow Mountain was an attempt to get it on the screen.  But Ray wanted to honor his mentor by finally getting O’B’s full vision on the screen.

And the result is incredible: it starts with a forbidden valley and hints of something mysterious before taking us to the circus and an absolutely stunning horse act (supplied by Ray, of course!).  James Franciscus stars as Tuck Kirby, a promoter — although “con man” might be more accurate — who has left the show a long time ago but is back with a big offer to buy the show from its star (and his former flame), T.J. Breckinridge.

Only she’s got new act that will make it a huge hit — a tiny horse named Diablo, which a visiting paleontologist recognizes as an Eohippus.

Unfortunately, the local natives steal Diablo and try to return it to the valley.  Tuck and the other circus hands go in pursuit, and they find…

Well, if you’ve seen the poster, you know already:

Dinosaurs.

Ray’s work here is stellar.  The dinosaurs are full of life, particularly the Allosaurus.  It is vicious, powerful and moves like a real creature, with a vicious snapping lunge when it attacks.

And, for goodness sakes, we get to see cowboys trying to rope it!

Ray’s films often suffered from weak stories and poor scripts.  He would come up with an outline and illustrate some of the best scenes in order to sell the film, but ultimately the direction, casting and script were left to others and seemed to get weaker as time went on.

But they are all remarkably strong here, even if his final film was only a dozen years away.

Look, this is a marvelously fun film, with a mostly solid cast (even if Gila Golan’s voice as T.J. is just awful!), an entertaining script, with a great turn by British character actor Laurence Naismith as the somewhat devious paleontologist, and a winning performance from James Franciscus.  Those of you used to the endless digital dinosaurs thrown up on the screen these days may grumble that the beasts don’t look as perfect as they did in the last Jurassic Park misfire, but they have far more life and personality than anything anyone’s made in a long time.

If you love dinosaur movies, stop-motion monsters or cowboys, you need to see this one.

After all, it is one of Ray’s finest moments…

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