We look back at the western fantasy featuring James Franciscus and a bunch of dinosaurs.
Editor's Note: Throughout the month of October, C&I is celebrating the golden westerns of 1969, a year that changed the game for the beloved film genre. Check the Entertainment tab each day to see a different film recommendation by C&I senior writer Joe Leydon. And be on the lookout for the upcoming November/December 2019 print edition, which prominently features one of the 25 greatest films of 1969 on its cover.
For decades, Willis O’Brien, the special effects whiz who gave the world King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, sought to bring to the screen a scenario involving an interspecies showdown between cowboys and dinosaurs.
In 1956, his basic concept was given a trial run of sorts when it was used as source material for The Beast of Hollow Mountain, a passably entertaining B-movie in which Guy Madison (then best known as the star of TV’s The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok) played a cattle rancher who’s mightily peeved when he discovers a T-Rex has been feasting on his herd. But it wasn’t until 1969 that O’Brien’s original story — along with some of his dinosaur designs — inspired a major studio production: The Valley of the Gwangi, a G-rated, cult-favorite popcorn flick starring James Franciscus (Beneath the Planet of the Apes), Gila Golan (Our Man Flint), Richard Carlson (The Creature from the Black Lagoon), and…
Oh, who are we kidding? The real stars here are the prehistoric beasties animated by another master special effects craftsman, O’Brien protégé Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad).
Franciscus plays Tuck Kirby, a former stuntman now employed by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, who’s reunited with his ex-lover, T.J. Breckinridge (Golan), as they venture into a remote area of Mexico — a place called Forbidden Valley, but they don’t take the hint — to track down an attraction for Breckinridge’s failing rodeo. That’s where they encounter, among other prehistoric creatures, a ferocious Allosaurus, a.k.a. Gwangi. They lasso the big critter and cart it back to the rodeo, hoping to exploit it as an audience magnet. Not surprisingly, nothing good comes of this.
The Valley of the Gwangi is available on major streaming platforms.