Amongst the methonal fumes, corduroy flares and taste of cresta in the pre-star wars seventies there was relatively little of the fantastic to occupy the day dreaming mind of the under 10s. There was occasional Saturday morning Godzilla, there was Flash Gordon and various other assorted grand ideas fitting into a budget.
Valley of Gwangi crashed into my world during this time. At Gran’s house, A creepy pre title, the very western theme music with crashing timpani (by Jerome Morross of Big Country (not that one that one), the promise of cowboys vs dinosaurs. A playfulness of genre unusual until the age when comic books finally took over cinema.
Gwangi was conceived by Willis O’Brien, prime animator of the original King Kong. It was Part of a set of ideas featuring Cowboys and monsters (including Mighty Joe Young and the xxxxx). O’Brien was unable to finish the project and handed it to his apprentice, Ray Harryhausen, who had by then completed many multi creature films which were mostly better t.
The Allosaurus in gwangi was fast moving, tail constantly curling, in a candid moment it scratched it’s nose. It was alive. Many books at that time were still telling us that dinosaurs were sluggish, slow moving cold blooded creatures. But Harryhuasen looked at them with the eye of an animator, seeing how they neeed to move. Consequently he was ahead of many paleantologists and he produced a level of dynamism unmatched until Speilberg got his hands in the Train Set 23 years later.
Showing my children a film such as this is a recipe for heartbreak. They’re raised on hi end 21st century cgi, it’s meaning is lost to them because they don’t get the history and it’s just too old. Sometimes it’s equally devastating revisiting a treasure of childhood, one sees the flaws not perceived at such a young age. Gwangi carries some of that, yet the magic still carries me away.
I had the privilege of meeting Harryhausen about twenty years ago. I managed to mumble about how much I loved the film and had gone through the lasso sequence frame by frame enough times to degrade a VHS. He smiled and told me the story of how they had taken a jeep with a pole, the stunt riders lassoed the pole and the jeep accelerated back and forth pulling the riders off the horses, and then by the “magic of cinema” (his words) they removed the pole and put Gwangi in. I nodded gratefully and crawled back under my stone.
As mentioned The Valley of Gwangi is being shown as an open air screening in Victoria Square, Bedminster, Bristol on August 8th as part of the Bristol Bad Film Club (wtf?) (oh wait, they apologise). I am unable to attend and have nothing but cold, hard envy for all of you who can.