Ray Harryhausen was a huge part of my childhood. I didn’t grow up during his heyday, but my young need to see anything that stomped on tiny, screaming people brought his work and I into a collision course. I wish I could write something sentimental about his passing, but there are a lot of people who wrote about the magic he brought to cinema much better than I could.
Instead, I’d like to focus on my favorite film of his (and my favorite dinosaur movie) The Valley Of Gwangi. I don’t want to spoil too much of it, but there are a lot of morals to be found in this movie. And maybe, just maybe, by learning a few of them, you can grow into the functional adult that I am.*
There Is No Right Way To Do A Trailer
Usually, movie previews like to use short clips to give us a hint as to what we are going to see in the actual film. The Gwangi trailer doesn’t use hints as much as it just uses Gwangi. Within the first minute of the two-and-a-half minute trailer, we’ve already established the poor logical skills of humans and how pissed off Gwangi is. And how pissed off is Gwangi? Answer: Constantly.
Movie trailers also like to use a sort of crescendo, starting off with the “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne’s” and ending with the “Chanting about rising and stuff.” They build in intensity. Gwangi seems to do this at first, showing the pageantry of a Cowboy stage show and then decides that they would be much better off just showing how terrifying a dinosaur is when you live in a time where guns were only slightly more effective than swiping cat paws.
To help with the plot hints and crescendos, trailers like to use voiceover, to let the audience know just how much of a world without law they’re watching or how much a certain cop doesn’t play by the rules. Gwangi doesn’t use any narration, except for Gwangi. An alien snake hisses the word “Gwangi…Gwangi…Gwangi…” over clips of Gwangi, to let us know how important Gwangi is. It’s not a trailer that’s going to play around with your emotions. They spent a decent amount of money on Gwangi and by God, they’re going to show you Gwangi. If this trailer was made today, we’d get shots of a dinosaur’s foot, some people screaming and then maybe a quick scene of Gwangi’s head popping into frame for internet commenters to poorly interpret.
The Valley Of Gwangi’s trailer shows us that the usual way to make a proper preview isn’t necessarily the only way. You can use the Gwangi method too, although it would be initially jarring for The Great Gatsby trailer to feature someone hissing “Gatsby…Gatsby…Gatsby…” over Leonardo DiCaprio looking cool.
Dubbing Is Totally Okay
Before I get into the film itself, I have one other thing of note. Dubbing is usually held in low regard, a practice reserved for rental copies of Miyazaki movies and people summoning Mothra. The Valley Of Gwangi features dubbing on a massive, absurd scale. Every character except one speaks with the voice of the actor playing them, but Gila Golan, the leading lady in the thing, is completely Darth Vader’d into Gwangi.
Gila was Polish, so maybe she spoke one word on set and the director decided that he wouldn’t be the one to let America lose. Or maybe she spoke and all that came out was the narration for the trailer. Regardless, someone decided that it wasn’t fitting to hear actual Gila in Gwangi and they replaced her with an actress that has never been identified. That’s how okay the people behind Gwangi were with the greatest cover-up in film history.
Don’t Trust Tiny Horses
The main plot of Gwangi starts with a tiny prehistoric horse. This is the first thing Harryhausen animated that shows up in the movie and it’s an adorable little thing that spells utter doom for hundreds of people. A lot of guys want this tiny horse, because there’s a lot you can do with it. A tiny horse can take little shits in doll houses and can wear little top hats. But even more so than that, a tiny horse means that there might be more tiny horses. If the film had taken a more positive turn, the cowboys would have entered the Forbidden Valley to find tons of miniature hoof parties and the movie would have been retitled Awwwww.
A Cowboy Will Always Make The Worst Decision Available
When trying to wrangle up dinosaurs, or make it through a valley of them unharmed, choosing a group full of circus-trained cowboys is the worst idea, because that team never fails to make the least helpful contributions to the journey. They have been trained to theatrically fight and hogtie bulls, and they immediately try to use these same techniques on the giant reptiles of the Forbidden Valley. 99% of these fail spectacularly.
They try to tie up a Pteranodon and when it doesn’t comply, they simply decide to break its neck. They later try to lasso Gwangi and this goes downhill as soon as it begins. Ever-angry Gwangi takes the puny ropes being thrown around his neck as an invitation to rip apart some intestines and egos.
One guy even tries to ward off Gwangi by flapping a blanket at him. I’m not sure if he was the one guy that they didn’t give a gun to or if he was trying to make Gwangi mad enough to end his pathetic, weaponless life, but if you guess that it finished with Gwangi biting onto the blanket and pulling him off a cliff, you’d be right.
Dinosaurs Are Never Not Pissed
One of my favorite documentaries was Planet Dinosaur. This John Hurt-narrated masterpiece was full of dinosaur facts and theories, but the greatest theory that it laid down was that every dinosaur is angry all the time. No dinosaur entered the scene in Planet Dinosaur without death on its mind. The only time that two dinosaurs have been in the same area without brutally ripping each other to shreds was in the first chapter of The Bible.
The Valley Of Gwangi follows this same train of thought, and it’s only exacerbated by cowboys repeatedly prodding at them. You see four different dinosaurs in Gwangi, and the only one that doesn’t seem to want to bother anyone is almost immediately eaten by one who really, really does. The Pteranodon shows up and immediately snatches up a small child. The Styracosaurus’ first act is to try and fight Gwangi. His second act is the exact same thing, and it eventually gets him killed.
Gwangi hates the idea of anyone or anything being near him at any time. There is never a quiet moment with him. No Gwangi sunning himself or Gwangi lazily walking through the desert. Many paleontologists have made attempts to lame-up dinosaurs lately by telling us how wrong we were about them. You know T-Rex? He was a giant coward. Triceratops? He liked wearing fedoras. Gwangi was made in a much simpler era, so as biologically incorrect as it might be, he was always in the mood for a good slaughtering.
Don’t Trust Dwarves Either
Before Game Of Thrones, dwarves were either going to comically sleep with your wife or try to assassinate James Bond. I don’t know if I can call this stereotyping, because both of these things are awesome, but the little person was put into a very limited position when it came to writing them into movies.
In Gwangi, a dwarf shows up and instantly tries to unlock the dinosaur’s cage. In the handbook of bad ideas, someone who’s three feet tall trying to release a giant carnivore ranks near the bottom. He doesn’t even try to do it from a distance. He simply sneaks up to the cage and it only takes a few minutes for Gwangi to eat him. I don’t want to call this plan “stupid”, considering that ten minutes ago, men were trying to defeat an Allosaur by riding horses close to it, but, in the pantheon of things that a dwarf actor could have done in this time period, it’s only slightly better than walking up and trying to offer Gwangi three shiny gold coins.
To Become A Man, You Must Beat An Elephant
In Harryhausen films, elephants were kind of like a mini boss that you battled before you reached the next level or climax of the movie. Ymir, in Twenty Million Miles To Earth, senses that, in order to proceed, he must first kill an elephant. It was the passage into manhood when you’re a Harryhausen creation. Ymir could only accomplish his goal in wrecking everything else if he first matched strength with that loud, gray thing with tusks. The same goes for Gwangi.
By the time Gwangi came out, Harryhausen’s affinity for watching elephants fight fantasy beasts had only increased. When Gwangi escapes his cage and crushes the antagonist of the film with a piece of it, the first thing he spots in his violent quest for freedom is an elephant. The elephant charges straight at Gwangi but it hasn’t really psyched itself up enough for the match and doesn’t stand a chance.
Though it had a strong opening, the elephant makes its mistake by using its first attack turn to bare its side to Gwangi, a fight combination not unlike meeting a bear and immediately attempting to make it a sandwich. This attack rolls for -60 and Gwangi bites onto the pachyderm. Though the elephant does manage to knock Gwangi down a few times during the fight, he doesn’t have the experience of something which has spent its whole life murdering anything that moves. In the end, Gwangi latches onto the elephants neck with his teeth until it stops bleating, which is Gwangi’s number one offensive tactic throughout the film.
If you’ve never seen The Valley Of Gwangi, I really think you should. Though it’s often ranked below some of the other films he worked on, like The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad or The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, I love it. It’s constantly entertaining and constantly Gwangi.
Thank you, Harryhausen. You were, like your creations, amazing.