Cowpokes head into a mysterious Mexican valley to head ’em up and move ’em out. But they’re not looking for little doggies. They’re looking for great big dinosaurs. James Franciscus stars in this thunderous adventure featuring amazing special effects by Ray Harryhausen [The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Clash of the Titans (1981)]. Franciscus plays a Wild West showman who leads his riding and roping crew into the title region, where prehistoric giants still roam. Thanks to Harryhausen wizardry, fantastic creatures lunge, fight and rampage in scene after dazzling scene (including an awesome sequence where the cowboys rope Gwangi, a razor-toothed allosaurus). Saddle up and join the excitement.
Ray Harryhausen is practically a cinematic sub-genre unto himself. You hear that iconic name and you're instantly flooded with visions of fantastical creatures; dinosaurs, skeletons, spacemen attacking some poor hapless human. As the protege of the special effects pioneer Willis O'Brein, Harryhausen quickly surpassed his mentor's abilities and standing as the master of special effects. But he never forgot the man who taught him everything he knew. With 1969's The Valley of Gwangi, Harryhausen working with Director Jim O'Connolly pits Cowboys against Dinosaurs in a fitting tribute to O'Brein.
The world is changing fast. As the west has already been won, old-time cowherds and range fighters like Champ (Richard Carlson) have been striking out a living putting on a theme show in a Mexican circus. His daughter T.J. (Gila Golan) is the main star and attraction of the show. T.J.'s former co-star and onetime lover Tuck (James Franciscus) want's to buy out the show and turn it into something a bit more profitable. When one of the locals arrives with a small, strange creature that should be long extinct, Tuck can't help himself but see dollar signs.
With the help of esteemed scientist Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith), Tuck, T.J., and Champ head out into the unexplored deserts of Mexico towards a fabled valley the locals dare not enter. What they find is a dangerous world that time forgot with towering creatures and a monstrous allosaurus known by legend as the deadly Gwangi! When Tuck and the rest of the explorers manage to rope and subdue Gwangi, Tuck sees his best chance for fame and fortune by putting the dinosaur on display. Little does he know death, destruction, and disaster are in store when the legendary monster breaks loose.
If The Valley of Gwangi is one of those classic ideas that gets recycled again and again. Much like 1933's King Kong, Willis O'Brein aimed to update the creature with a new fad of the time, Dinosaurs, and make the material feel fresh and new again. Originally planned for a late 1950s release as a final collaborative project between O'Brein and his one-time student Ray Harryhausen, the project, unfortunately, fell apart. After O'Brein passed away in 1962, Harryhausen resurrected the project.
As the film gets rolling along, it doesn't always look like a signature Harryhausen adventure. With the grandiose score by Jerome Moross and the bright, colorful Erwin Hillier cinematography, The Valley of Gwangi feels more like a traditional late-era western. It's got cowboys, ropes, and not very many creatures. Then the miniature horse shows up and all of a sudden it starts to feel a bit more in tune with Harryhausen's penchant for creating animated little critters. Even still, a miniature horse is hardly something to get excited about. It's cute, sure, but it's not exactly what you came to the movies to see. Where are the dinosaurs of the poster? Well, it turns out that Harryhausen was taking a page from Kong and was wisely saving the best beasts until later in the film.
When the big bad thunder lizards show up, the film becomes a spectacle featuring the some of the best creature effects Harryhausen ever captured on film. Some of the most exciting scenes involve our cowboys trying to wrangle the titular Gwangi with multiple human actors interacting with the stop-motion creature. Toss in a triceratops and a pterodactyl, the trip to the forbidden valley is a huge payoff. When our main monster manages to break loose in a populated city, that's just the cherry on top of an already rip-roaring adventure.
As a lifelong fan of westerns and monster movies, The Valley of Gwangi was the perfect amalgamation of two of my favorite genres. Featuring fantastic performances from Gila Golan, James Franciscus, and Richard Carlson, The Valley of Gwangi is a western science fiction delight. I hadn't seen this film since my old LaserDisc copy developed a tragic amount of rot right when the big monsters start to appear so this Blu-ray was a great reconnection to an old favorite. Harryhausen films are always special for me. Ever since my dad introduced me to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad I've had an unending love for Harryhausen's stop-motion creature effects and have built a near-complete collection of his films on Blu-ray. All we need is for Warner Archive to do a proper Blu-ray release of Irwin Allen's pseudo-documentary The Animal World and then every major Harryhausen special effects feature film will have been released on Blu-ray. I personally can't wait to complete the collection.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Valley of Gwangi arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive. Pressed onto a Region Free BD-50 disc, the disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options.
The Valley of Gwangi is given a bright and beautiful transition to Blu-ray with this 1.85:1 1080p transfer. Detail levels are terrific. the open landscape, the closeups of people or the Harryhausen creatures, costuming - all are on display for the viewer to digest. For the optical composite shots, there are some baked in softness issues that aren't a fault of the transfer. Colors are on the vivid primary-thick range of the spectrum. Reds get a lot of punch and the big open blue sky looks terrific. As hopes, the Harryhausen creations look amazing so fans should be more than happy. The print sourced for this transfer is in terrific shape. There aren't any visible signs of age-related wear and tear, only the typically noisy background grit during those optical shots that can't be fixed. All around this is a terrific looking transfer and is another big win for Warner Archive.
The Valley of Gwangi roars to life with a robust DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono mix. The actor's dialogue is always clearly heard throughout. Action scenes or the wild west show have a lot of layered in background elements like shuffling crowds and muffled voices and cheers to give these scenes a sense of space and dimension. Much of the film sounds rather unassuming as it plays like a traditional western - that is until the first dinosaurs arrive on scene. Their roars have that terrific guttural sound to them and really punch things up when the big bad Gwangi breaks loose. Levels are on point, so once they're set you won't have to adjust things. Other than some very occasional slight hiss, there really isn't anything to complain about with this mix.
Supplemental content is on the leaner side, all ported over from the previous DVD release. The Harryhausen interview is a nice one, I just wish it was longer. That guy has some great stories to tell. For a great movie about Harryhausen and his creations, check out Ray Harryhausen: Special Effects Titan from Arrow.
Return to the Valley: (SD 8:04) Various special effects creators and Harryhausen are interviewed about the effects of the film.
Gwangi and Vanessa: (SD 1:03) This is a quick, cute story about the time Harryhausen's young daughter first saw the Gwangi model.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:44)
The Valley of Gwangi is one of the last Harryhausen special effects films to make it to Blu-ray - and it just so happens to be a rip-roaring adventure! All we need is The Animal World and our collections will be complete. With this one, you've got cowboys roping stop-motion dinosaurs - what more could you want? It's 95 minutes of pure fun. Warner Archive delivers another terrific back catalogue release ensuring Gwangi looks and sounds better than ever with this stellar A/V presentation. Extras are unfortunately on the slim side, but that's okay. I'm just happy this terrific looking Blu-ray release can allow me to retire my rot-riddled LaserDisc. Highly Recommended.