Thursday, January 3, 2013

In short: The Valley of Gwangi (1969)

Sometimes, it's not as easy to love the films built around the stop motion effects glories of Ray Harryhausen as I would wish for.

Case in point is The Valley of Gwangi that embodies the general weaknesses of the Charles Schneer productions (I have the impression the director of a given film didn't have much of a say in anything here, so I'll pretend Jim O'Connolly didn't exist, something his direction makes easy enough) made to showcase Harryhausen's special effects particularly well without always having the charm to make up for it. Hint: these weaknesses are mostly caused by the films' stories being built around the effects, not the effects built for the story, a problem that's much less visible in the mythological fantasy pieces of Schneer/Harryhausen which actually lends themselves to such an approach.

Gwangi's main problem is that it starts out by presenting the audience with truly atrocious human drama, featuring chauvinist pig and all-around asshole James Franciscus, racist stereotype and liar Gustavo Rojo, paternalistic douche Richard Carlson, amoral scientist Laurence Naismith, not as interesting as one would wish her to be Gila Golan and a "Mexican" boy without self-preservation instincts. These horrible personages go through various plot contortions that will some day lead them into the titular valley of Gwangi where they will kidnap a helpless Tyrannosaur for fame and money.

Obviously, it takes way too much time until the film gets to the good stuff, especially when you keep in mind how badly developed and vile the characters are, how random each of their decisions and how jumpy their emotions (why, you could think they feel exactly like the plot needs them to feel at any given moment). These are people in whose presence one wants to spend as little time as possible, particularly when one could watch cowboys fight dinosaurs and hope the main characters get eaten. I don't think I even have to mention the painful romance plot between Franciscus and Golan and the cheap moralizing, nor that I'd rather like to see a sequel to the film that tells me how many years in jail the protagonists spend afterwards (of course, it's not the protagonists' fault the T-Rex goes on the mandatory rampage at the film's finale, it's the evil brown peoples' fault; you can't help but be embarrassed by this crap).

This combination of bad, bad, horrible romance, racism, and boring yet vile characters is so strong in Valley of Gwangi's case even the beautiful and numerous dinosaurs of the film's second half make it difficult to overlook these flaws. Which is what happens when there's more flaw than film, really, and when a film about cowboys fighting dinosaurs rather wastes its time trying to convince the audience that James Franciscus is a charming rogue.


Todd said...

I knew there was a reason that this is the only Harryhausen feature I've yet to see.

houseinrlyeh aka Denis said...

It's a real disappointment, particularly when you think the magic words "cowboys versus dinosaurs" before watching it.