History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Monday, September 16, 2013

Another dino hideout: "The Valley of Gwangi" (1969)

The blending of cowboys and dinosaurs was an idea waiting to happen. Fantasies involving dinosaurs had been irresistible for a long time.
You would think special effects would have to advance a long way before dinos on the screen would be workable. It's fascinating that in the 1933 "King Kong," various dinos including a flying one, came off on screen as good as you would want. We have Willis O'Brien to thank for that.
O'Brien became a mentor for Ray Harryhausen. Basically that relationship was a passing of the torch. The two gave us "stop-motion" special effects. "King Kong" does not need to be viewed in the context of archival movies, where we expect the craftsmanship to come off as primitive. It leaps off the screen at you. When that stegosaurus tail does its swipe as the creature is dying, we flinch in our seats.
Harryhausen gave us dinosaurs in "The Valley of Gwangi." His genius comes through in the roping scene. That signature scene was labor-intensive even by the standards of "stop-motion."
I have written before about two movies that had to scrap stop-motion because of its cost. One was "The Lost World," a 1960 release that ended up using real modern reptiles as dinos, filmed so that they might seem large. The other is "Mars Attacks!" which should need no introduction, but I'll note that CGI came to the rescue for that one.
In "King Kong" it was beauty that killed the beast. In "Mars Attacks!" it was yodeling that killed the invaders.
"Gwangi" in cultural/historical context
"The Valley of Gwangi" came out in 1969. America at that time was getting weary of the kind of monster movie that had become standard fare. I should emphasize that America was getting tired of lots of things in 1969. Our society was in flux. We certainly had become tired of "robes and sandals" movies typified by "Cleopatra" (with Liz Taylor).
Our society was in tumult in many ways. It's sad that "The Valley of Gwangi" came out when our appetite for this entertainment had diminished.
The movie had been conceived years earlier. As with many Hollywood projects, bumps in the road had to be navigated. O'Brien drew up this movie idea, decades earlier in fact, inspired by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book "The Lost World." That book led to the movie of the same name in 1960 (with Claude Rains). The premise of that book was one that could be mined further of course. It was mined for the comic book series "Turok, Son of Stone." Prehistoric creatures continue to live in some remote section of the Earth. It might be a "lost valley" or in the case of the 1960 "The Lost World," an elevated plateau in South America. (I'm not sure how the dinos could stay totally confined in such places.)
Willis O'Brien envisioned a movie called "Valley of the Mists." Who knows why it couldn't get a thumbs-up for making. O'Brien passed away in 1962. I'm not sure to what extent "The Valley of Gwangi" followed O'Brien's conception. But the 1969 American western fantasy is considered to be the fruit of that conception.
The public taste for such a movie was at a diminished level, and adding to the problem was a change in management at Warner Brothers and Seven Arts. The powers-that-be didn't have their hearts in this cinema. So, "The Valley of Gwangi" was released with little promotional effort on a double bill with a biker film! It thus missed its target audience and was not as successful as other Harryhausen efforts.
You'll remember that ol' Ray gave us the seven swordfighting skeletons. Who can forget that scream as the skeletons began their attack! America may not have been fired up about a movie like "Gwangi" in 1969. Little did we know that such movies would make a spectacular comeback! There is a scene in "Gwangi" that appears to have inspired a scene in the celebrated "Jurassic Park." The big dino in "Gwangi" appears from behind a hill and snatches a fleeing ornithominus in his jaw. Steven Spielberg gave us a scene almost exactly like this. Was he paying homage? It's possible because after all, he used the actual "time machine" from the 1960 movie in one of his "Gremlin" movies. 
"The Valley of Gwangi" with its unheralded release might have ended up in the dustbin. Except that it emerged in subsequent years drawing on its obvious appeal for sci-fi buffs or people who just like reasonably good action/horror movies. Because, "Gwangi" certainly delivers on these grounds.
Remember the 1980s TV series "Scarecrow and Mrs. King?" Any time a TV screen is shown in the series, "The Valley of Gwangi" is playing. An inside joke? Someone's attempt to pay more homage?
Let's give a tip of the hat to "The Valley of Gwangi" which is what they might call "a good popcorn movie."
Spielberg gave us the T-Rex as his headlining menacing creature - an obvious choice. What's interesting about "Gwangi" is that even though the star monster is like a T-Rex, it's not actually a T-Rex. I'm not sure why they bothered making this minor deviation. "Gwangi" is an allosaurus, which to the uninitiated would be considered a tyrannosaurus (T-Rex).
The story: rodeo is the backdrop
"The Valley of Gwangi" takes place in Mexico at the turn of the century. A cowgirl hosts a rodeo which isn't doing particularly well. She has a former love interest played by James Franciscus, an actor who we might say became famous for not being Charlton Heston in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes." Franciscus is a quite fine actor who for some reason - lacking intangibles? - got a 'B' movie tag. Hollywood bestows fame in mysterious ways.
Franciscus works in his character of "Tuck" in "The Valley of Gwangi." He's charming as a roguish individual. Actually, everyone in this movie seems to have venal goals. Perhaps that tone was a reflection of the times in which "Gwangi" was filmed. America was brimming with cynicism. It was easy to envision less than laudable motives on the part of everyone.
I have written before about the 1969 release "The Bridge at Remagen," a WWII flick that has cynicism stamped all over it. A reviewer has said of "Remagen" that "every character is pissed off all the time." Also, the military people give "lip" to their superiors constantly. Movies reflect the cultural tone and priorities of the time in which they were made. So, the tone of "Gwangi" can't be expected to be real uplifting. There's no uplifting feeling of the human character in triumph. The venal tone doesn't get impaled like it would in a contemporary movie.
I have written before about "Almost Famous," that movie set in the 1960s that has a happy ending for all of the sympathetic characters. Such optimism was the norm for when the movie was made (in 2000). I wrote that in the real-life '60s, happy endings were hardly frequent or to be expected.
"The Valley of Gwangi" doesn't have the uplifting qualities but it has action and horror attributes to guarantee its audience. We see the allosaurus fighting men on horses. We have gypsies who know all about the valley and its mysteries, and are superstitious about this.
Cowboys vs. dinosaurs is really great, a plot line waiting to happen. Cowboys vs. their ex-girlfriends wasn't quite as engaging.
There's a paleontologist in the movie just like in "Jurassic Park." "Bromley" the paleontologist shows "Tuck" fossilized horse tracks. Ergo, such a horse actually exists in the flesh in the traveling circus which is run by the seductive "T.J."
Bromley declares this little creature to in fact be an eohippus. It has a name: "El Diablo."
A gypsy named "Tia" claims the horse is cursed. The gypsies feel it needs to be released back into "the forbidden valley." Bromley learns of these intentions and feels it's just fine, as he can then follow them to find more such creatures. Tuck sets off after Bromley. Still others follow, including T.J., and eventually they all meet up.
A flying dinosaur swoops down at them. They follow a small dino which is then seized and eaten by "Gwangi," the star of the movie - that allosaurus (slightly smaller than a T-Rex). A styracosaurus appears and chases Gwangi away. The "sty" has horns that can fend off the largest predators.
Gwangi later pursues the humans back to their base camp. The cowboys try to rope him but he breaks free when the "sty" reappears. Gwangi with the help of a circus employee named "Carlos" finally disposes of the "sty." But Gwangi also dispatches poor ol' Carlos. Gwangi gets "knocked out" as it attempts to pursue the other humans as they exit the valley. Thus the humans can capture the dino, dollar signs in their eyes for sure.
The idea now is to have the dino in T.J.'s show. The gypsies still feel uncomfortable with the beast outside of its valley. So, a gypsy dwarf sneaks around and tries to free Gwangi from its cage. Gwangi breaks free and eats the gypsy. Bummer.
The crowd flees as Gwangi goes on your basic monster rampage. The crowd seeks refuge in a cathedral (inspired by "War of the Worlds?").
Gwangi is able to break in. Many of the people flee through a back exit. "Tuck" has a torch and starts an interior fire which eventually kills the dino. There's your plot synopsis.
Gina Golan plays the beautiful T.J. if you'll permit me to make a sexist observation.
A critic has written of "The Valley of Gwangi" that it's "a disposable piece of fluff, and yet there's something wholly appealing about it anyway." I have also read the following: "It's gratifying to see a movie that doesn't want to be more than it is."
And: "(It's the) kind of tossed-off ephemera that does right by the eight-year-old hiding inside all of us."
I think of "The Valley of Gwangi" as the kind of movie that was typical for the weekly "Taconite Theater" - I think that was its name - us Minnesota boomers watched when young. We also watched "Zulu" (Michael Caine) which eventually came out on VHS tape in a series called "Fun Time." That was a hoot: "Zulu" as part of a "Fun Time" video series! Ah, the movies. They aren't what they used to be. And that's a compliment for what they used to be.
"The Valley of Gwangi" gets plenty of barbs from the highbrow crowd, but I encourage a tip of the hat for such imaginative sci-fi. Now we need to get "Turok, Son of Stone" on the big screen. "Jurassic Park III" was an ambitious movie but it came off odd, like it couldn't make up its mind whether it was serious or somewhat farcical. It was schizophrenic. Such movies ought to be totally serious. Even if all the humans have venal motives.
"The Valley of Gwangi" passes muster by my standards. Even on a double billing with a biker movie.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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