Stop-motion legend Willis O’Brien conceived this wild west dinosaur epic back in 1942, although it took twenty-seven years to reach the screen under the aegis of his protégé, Ray Harryhausen. In the old west, stuntman-turned-entrepreneur “Tuck” Kirby (James Franciscus) visits a small Mexican town where he tries to buy an ailing circus off his former fiancé T.J. Breckinridge (Gila Golan). But T.J. plans to revive her fortunes thanks to a new star attraction: a tiny horse that Tuck, aided by British palaeontologist Professor Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith) and Mexican monster-fan Lope (Curtis Arden), learns is a prehistoric Eohippus.
Gypsy woman Madame Zorina (Freda Jackson) believes the animal is cursed and despatches a gang of thieves, aided by Bromley who hopes it will lead him to the Forbidden Valley. Tuck and Lope are roped into this dangerous escapade, with T.J., “Champ” Connors (Richard Carlson) and their fearless cowboys in pursuit until they reach the valley where time stood still. Here they discover a flying Pterodactyl, a scampering Ornithomimus, the spiky Styracosaurus and a ferocious Allosaurus nicknamed Gwangi.
Cowboys versus dinosaurs is such a dynamic concept it’s a wonder why it took so long to happen and why no-one has tried it since. Imagine John Wayne punching out a triceratops! It isn’t too far-fetched, John Ford was an uncredited director on Harryhausen’s Mighty Joe Young (1949). Three years after the hit Hammer co-production, One Million Years B.C. (1966), Harryhausen had perfected Dynamation dinosaurs to the point where The Valley of Gwangi features some of his most striking work. The little Eohippus and sky blue Gwangi (whom the animator admits looks more like a Tyrannosaurus Rex) are beautiful creations, while Jerome Moss’ rousing score adds punch to the exciting, action set-pieces.
And yet this suffers some of the problems Willis O’Brien identified in Harryhausen’s early efforts as a fledgling animator. His animation is technically impeccable, yet devoid of emotion. The Mexican townsfolk may cry when Gwangi (actually a Native American name for “lizard”) meets its fiery fate, but Harryhausen is unable to inspire us to do the same. The plot - as with any Harryhausen/Charles H. Schneer production not based on ancient myth - is purely functional, designed to show off the monsters with little in the way of engaging or even sympathetic characters. A bikini-clad Raquel Welch almost upstaged his prehistoric menagerie last time round, but there is no danger of that happening here. Franciscus and Golan (whose thick Spanish accent was re-dubbed) are unexceptional. Tuck is scripted as a curiously smug and charmless hero, although turning a stock, stuffy British professor like Bromley into a villain is an interesting touch.
While it takes around forty-five minutes before the dinosaurs appear, it’s the action and spectacle that keeps us entertained. From the cowboys neck-snapping battle with the pterodactyl, the roping of Gwangi like an errant steer and his circus rampage at the climax. Well orchestrated by Jim O’Connolly, whose eccentric genre work includes Bizarre! (1967) - another circus set monster movie - and Tower of Evil (1971).