Monday, August 1, 2011

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) — Cowboys and Allosaurs

I caught Cowboys & Aliens this past weekend. Evidently my expectations were properly modulated, as I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It's a popcorn flick. It's got cowboys, it's got aliens, it's got 'splodey bits. No surprises there. Anything more is gravy, which for Elizabeth means Daniel Craig, who trades his steely-eyed 007 for steely-eyed Clint Eastwood quite agreeably. (And Harrison Ford looks far more at home and unembarrassed here than he did in his previous face-to-face with ETs. What was that film again? My memory has purged it....)

C&A had been on my list of movies to catch later at home casually on the couch via iTunes or Netflix streaming, but Elizabeth arranged a gathering of the tribe to meet at a local cinema and then enjoy each other's company afterward, and I have to say that I'm glad she did. It's not a bad way to see a movie like Cowboys & Aliens.

What surprised me about it was its evident affection for the Hollywood westerns of previous generations. The plot could not be more predictable and by-the-book (the slimy alien monsters could be any old rustlers and bandits and claim jumpers determined to stamp out runaway decency in the west) and no trope is left unturned. Okay, at the end, as our hero rides off into the sunset, the kid doesn't run after him shouting "Shane! Come back!", but it's there in spirit. Subtlety is utterly beside the point.

All the same, Cowboys & Aliens successfully walks the dusty line between winking self-mockery and respectful homage to the traditions of John Ford oaters and B westerns of yore. It's not the Coens' True Grit, with that film's arresting air of authenticity to its time and place. Rather, it begins and ends as a comfortable old shoe, and it reminded me of being a thrill-hungry 10-year-old catching another genre-mashing romp on Saturday afternoon TV: the Ray Harryhausen Wild West dinosaur spectacle, The Valley of Gwangi.

"Cowboys and dinosaurs" — seriously, that must be one of the all-time great Hollywood "high concept" pitches. The Valley of Gwangi does treat us to plenty of both. It has at least one sequence that belongs on any enthusiast's list of Best Dinosaur Scenes Ever.

However, this 1969 opus from co-producer and stop-motion master Harryhausen suffers from a familiar problem: as in his other Giant Creature features, from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms to Mysterious Island, the special-effects work is better than the rest of the movie. And yet, when you're a certain age, that's plenty enough, thank you, because what better reason is there to be watching at all?

The concept sounds great on paper: Members of a struggling Wild West show traveling through Mexico find Forbidden Valley, a lost world containing pterodactyls, triceratops, and other holdovers from the era of dinosaurs. There they capture Gwangi — an allosaurus and thus the biggest apex predator south of the border — in hopes of making it their show's star attraction. The movie sticks to the by-now threadbare King Kong formula by making sure that the towering monster breaks its bonds and goes on a public rampage.

On the plus side, The Valley of Gwangi gives us some of the most memorable of Harryhausen  extravaganzas. The scene with four cowboys lassoing Gwangi is justifiably famous, and the beast's hemmed-in confrontation in the town square and inside the church is first-rate even by modern standards. Its battle with a circus elephant is one of numerous similarities to Harryhausen's 20 Million Miles to Earth. And it's all set to Jerome Moross's rousing score, which refurbished parts of his work for 1958's The Big Country.

The DVD adds a bonus extra, Return to the Valley. Shot in 2003, it features Harryhausen, still hale and hearty at 83, talking about the movie's conception and development. Joining him are several starstruck young SFX professionals from Industrial Light and Magic. Appropriately reverent, they discuss the inspiration that Harryhausen and Gwangi provided to their work on Jurassic Park 24 years later, and they remain awestruck as they examine how to show life-size cowboys convincingly roping a tabletop model allosaurus, a sequence that took Harryhausen five months to complete. (Return to the Valley is embedded at the bottom of this page.)

Harryhausen's dinosaur designs were based on the art of Charles R. Knight, a nostalgic data point for viewers whose childhood imaginings predate Jurassic Park. Another Harryhausen treat here is the toy-like Eohippus, a long-extinct horse the size of a house cat.

But to get to the dinos we must first suffer through a story that plods along and that's peopled by characters with all the spark and personality of sagebrush. Half the movie passes before Gwangi leaps into frame for his startling entrance. (Jurassic Park paid tribute to that moment with the T-Rex's entrance.) James Franciscus cuts a bland hero, and Gila Golan (Our Man Flint, Miss Israel 1961, indelicately overdubbed) as the cowgirl T.J. is the stiffest of love interests. Even Richard Carlson, who fought The Creature From the Black Lagoon, barely registers.

It says something about the production and about Harryhausen's artistry — his meticulous sense of detail, realism, and imbued personality — that Gwangi, a snarling dinosaur created from a two-foot model, is the most realistically alive character on the screen.

This production had been a pet project of the late Willis O'Brien, who had wanted to do it in 1942. By the time Harryhausen dusted off his mentor's notes, The Valley of Gwangi was a relic of an antiquated era. Even though it was aimed chiefly at kids (who must have sighed like bored accordions through all the mushy stuff), the movie bombed. Of course, it didn't help that Warner Bros. just tossed it like a used napkin into the theatrical marketplace, inexplicably double-billing it with a mod British-French bit of psychedelia, Marianne Faithfull's Girl on a Motorcycle, thereby missing Gwangi's target audience entirely.

Nonetheless, by '69 monster movies were old hat anyway, and the year of Midnight Cowboy, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Easy Rider was too late in the day for an old-fashioned pulp yarn where cowboys are named Rowdy, Champ, and Tuck. Let's hope that there's an alternate universe where Harryhausen teamed up with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin to make this the Wild Wild West movie that should have been.

Despite its shortcomings and because of that always-entertaining Harryhausen spectacle, decades of Saturday afternoon TV airings have secured The Valley of Gwangi in the hearts and memories of erstwhile ten-year-old boys everywhere. So I can't help but wonder if someone behind Cowboys & Aliens — Jon Favreau, Speilberg, Ron Howard? — experienced a happy flashback to The Valley of Gwangi when the C&A pitch landed in their laps.

Return to the Valley: A "making of" documantary

Music: The Beatles
Near at hand: Parts of a would-be play script stalled in the middle