Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Seen It: The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Like many in my generation, as a youth Saturday afternoons were spent in large part watching monster movies. Of course, back then the phrase "monster movie" was a more all-encompassing term which was inclusive of any Saturday afternoon matinee on the local independent television station.

Titles ranged from the Universal Monsters (favorites included Werewolf of London (1935) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)), Japanese monsters such as Godzilla and Gamera, and anything "starring" Ray Harryhausen, especially either of his earlier Sinbad films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973). Harryhausen wasn't an actor, but something even better: a special effects wizard featured prominently in many of the Hollywood sci-fi and monsters magazines my brother and I favored as youths. He was was indeed the star of the movies that featured his creations.

Recently while recently doing some reading around classic "mash-ups" (a film defined as a creative combination or mixing of content from different sources, or in this particular case, genres) I came across a film title that I had often read about in old Hollywood special effects books, but had somehow never seen. Featuring the last Harryhausen's prehistoric-themed film work, The Valley of Gwangi (1969), had somehow missed my discerning 10 year-old eye, but the black and white movie stills from books of cowboys lassoing Tyrannosaurs had not.

Soon after entering my Netflix queue, a poor quality transfer of The Valley of Gwangi (1956) landed in my mailbox for my viewing pleasure. Time and nostalgia have a way of making even the weakest of films seem special and I suspect that was why I enjoyed what is generally regarded as a poor film. Directed by Jim O'Connolly and starring James Franciscus as the heroic Tuck, Gwangi is one-third Western, one-third action-adventure and one-third Harryhausen magic; any guesses as to which part works best? There is also some romance mixed in for good measure, as well as a beautiful lead actress, Gila Golan, who's accent was so thick that her lines were redubbed. The story would likely be seen by modern audiences as cookie-cutter, but only because so many of its best images have been lifted in homage in other, more successful films, most notably Jurassic Park (1993).

A moderately entertaining diversion, The Valley of Gwangi, while definitely worth catching on AMC, it may not be very successful with children who have been raised on CGI effects. In the case of those viewers, unfortunately, Harryhausen's work here is likely to elicit giggles in the same amounts it brings a warm sense of nostalgia to those of us who fondly remember his truly wonderful movie work.

The Valley of the Gwangi is available for rental in DVD format from Netflix.

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