Somewhere south of the Rio Grande at the turn of the 20th Century, the Breckenridge Wild West Show rolls into town. Hardly a roaring success, TJ Breckenridge (Gina Golan) and her crew need a lucky break.
TJ’s former beau Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) shows up in town. He’s now working as an agent, wheeling and dealing in the entertainment world, and he’s there to acquire TJ’s main attraction – a trick-jumping Arabian stallion called Omar – for Buffalo Bill’s show.
But TJ thinks she may have struck it rich when gypsies find a miniature horse in the desert, which can become their new star attraction.
Tuck learns of the little horse and immediately recognises the potential for money, while English professor Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith) – a palaeontologist researching his ‘Theory of the Humanoid’ evolutionary thesis in the vicinity – thinks the little horse is an Eohippus, the three-toed ‘Dawn Horse’, that should have been extinct for 50 million years.
Dubbed “The greatest scientific discovery of the age” by the professor and “El Diablo” by the Wild West show, the little horse becomes a bone of contention. Meanwhile, the gypsies – who found the horse in a desert zone known as the Forbidden Valley – believe the Eohippus is cursed and release it so it can return home.
Everyone sets off after it into the desert where they stumble upon the mythical, era-defying Forbidden Valley. Here they encounter a menagerie of prehistoric creatures, including a Pteranodon (identified in the film as a Pterodactyl), an Ornithomimus, a horned Styracosaurus and a mighty Tyrannosaurus, the mythical Gwangi.
The group have a ringside seat for combat between the latter two creatures, and the Pteranodon attacks them, as does Gwangi.
Eventually, as Gwangi tries to follow them out of the valley, it is buried in a rockslide and knocked unconscious. This allows the cowboys to cart the beast back to Villa Rosa to exhibit it as ‘Gwangi the Great’ – but their star attraction brings more than the house down . . .
On-off lovers James Franciscus and Gila Golan made a handsome couple in their stylised western costumes while Laurence Naismith was well cast as the enthusiastic palaeontologist, who – when mistaken for an archaeologist – corrects, “We dig deeper”. Freda Jackson was also memorable as the blind gypsy witch Tia Zorina, with her dwarf sidekick played by Jose Burgos.
Richard Carlson played TJ’s protective ringmaster Champ Connors; Gustavo Rojo was Tuck’s competition for TJ’s affections (he tries to frame Tuck for the theft of the Eohippus but gets his comeuppance when he’s eaten by Gwangi); Dennis Kilbane and Mario De Barros played cowboy wranglers Rowdy and Bean, while young Curtis Arden was Mexican orphan Lope, who latches onto Tuck and is genuinely distraught by Gwangi’s later demise.
This was the last film where Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects technique was billed as “Dynamation”. Starting with his next film, The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973), Dynamation was rebranded as “Dynarama”.
The Valley of Gwangi was filmed in Spain, standing in for the Mexican borderlands. The town the Wild West show parades through at the beginning of the story is the city of Tabernas, including the Plaza del Pueblo (for the street scenes and Gran Hotel exterior) and the local bullring. Much of the spectacular desert footage was filmed in the province of Almeria in Andalucia, southern Spain.
Carlos dos Orsos
Mario De Barros