Monday, January 18, 2010

A Lament for Gwangi

I watched The Valley of Gwangi with my family the other night. Despite Harryhausen's name in the credits, I was fully expecting a cheesy romp over the range- I mean, cowboys and dinosaurs? It doesn't get any better than that! While there were certainly elements of cheese- despite my protestations to the contrary, my son was not impressed with the special effects- I was surprised at the depths of emotion into which I plunged by the end of the film. And I do talk about the end of the film, so consider yourself spoiler-alerted if these things are important to you.

[I will here briefly paraphrase a side conversation I had with my son vis a vis groundbreaking SFX and the generation gap. My son: "These special effects are terrible!" Me: "Yes, son, but consider the time this was made- it was pretty impressive in its day. You know, Ray Harryhausen is considered by some to be the father of modern special effects." My son: "Yeah, well he should have been the grandfather of special effects."]

A brief plot summary: a group of cowboys go into a forbidden valley to try to capture an eohippus (yes, you read that correctly) for a circus-like show and find the king of the valley, an allosaur known as Gwangi, and capture him for the show instead. Godzilla-like events ensue (including people being eaten alive in this family-friendly G-rated extravaganza) except that Gwangi meets his end, after a valiant effort from our hero, by burning to death in a church. There is a romantic sub-plot and an English paleontologist who provides- to some extent- comic relief, but these details are mostly filler.

It was the last part of the film that really got me. I haven't seen enough sci-fi films from the fifties and sixties (Gwangi came out in '69) to make a good analysis, but it seems like the theme of man's interference in the natural world and the tragic consequences it causes pops up more than a few times during this period. As the film ended, I thought immediately of Revenge of the Creature and how my heart ached to see the titular creature struggling to get out of its man-made confines and the destruction it caused simply trying to be free. Similarly- perhaps even more so- watching the great Gwangi screaming until he collapsed as the flames consumed him and the cathedral crumbled around him (even recalling the scene now causes my heart to beat faster), produced such a frustration and anger at the human race that it pretty much destroyed the light, adventurous mood the film had sustained to the point of Gwangi's capture. If only we could leave well enough alone- if only we could not be so shortsighted and vain!

One thing that puzzled me was trying to figure out how Gwangi was supposed to be perceived. A handful of times the old gypsy woman referred to him as "evil," but the only "evil" thing Gwangi did during the film was to eat and try to defend himself. It wasn't clear whether Gwangi was being prepped/reinforced as a villain or if (bravo if this was the case) the old woman's attitude was written as a more sardonic attempt to point a finger at the melodramatic reaction of humanity in the face of the unknown and/or terrifying. Gwangi, from start to finish, seemed to me to be more victim than villain, ultimately helpless as the humans around him either used him for personal gain or revenge.

And, my son's opinion to the contrary, the SFX were pretty impressive. The first scene in which Harryhausen's work manifests itself is when T.J reveals the Eohippus that Carlos brought back from the forbidden valley to Tuck, her former lover. The little prehistoric horse is going to transform her show and make her a star. It comes out of its house, hesitantly and slowly. It is clear to modern audiences that this is stop-motion animation due to its trembling jerkiness. Yet the horse's movements themselves are beautiful- the sway of the its tail, the turn of its head...These and other details are surprisingly realistic and blended almost seamlessly with the horse's live action environment. The scenes in the forbidden valley are no less noteworthy. In one scene the cowboys lasso Gwangi and it looks like they are actually lassoing a giant, stop-motion animated dinosaur.

Okay, so it's still a little cheesy. Raised as I was by such celluloid marvels as Land of the Lost (the original, of course) and Clash of the Titans, I still live in the modern world of CGI, and the relatively primitive effects of films like these can sometimes take me out of the story. And while I can recognize the amount of skill and time and effort that goes into making a film like The Valley of Gwangi, I can't help but chuckle a little myself.

Just don't tell my son.

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