Spoiler alert: this article discusses the film in its entirety. If you don’t want to know how it ends, look away!
The Valley of Gwangi is a 1969 kaiju film in the Weird West style – a genre that mixes Western with fantasy (other examples include Billy the Kid versus Dracula and Cowboys & Aliens). It’s notable for being animation legend Ray Harryhausen’s last dinosaur-themed film.
The action begins with some Gypsies searching for their friend Miguel, who they eventually find dying in a pool of water, a vicious wound across his face. By his side is a small bag containing a whinnying creature. Miguel manages to utter one last word – “Gwangi!” – before expiring. One of the Gypsies, a blind seer called Tia Zorina (played by Freda Jackson), says they should leave the creature behind and declares that whoever takes from “Gwangi the evil one” is cursed. “My eyes are blind but I can still see the signs,” she threatens. “Keep your superstitions to yourself, old woman,” is the response as the rest of the group decide to take the creature-in-sack back to town.
We’re “Somewhere South of the Rio Grande” at the “turn of the (20th) Century”, and celebrations are in full swing for the arrival of the Breckenridge Wild West Show, a rodeo run by a cowgirl named T. J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan). The grand finale of the show features T. J. riding Omar the Wonder Horse off a platform into a pool of water surrounded by flames. On hand to witness this is old beau Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus), a former stuntman who left to seek his own fame and fortune with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. As Tuck looks on, T. J. and the fearless Omar make the leap:
Tuck hasn’t just turned up for a lark, oh no. He has a deal for T. J. He knows that her own show isn’t doing very well, and Buffalo Bill wants to buy Omar for his own show. “And you get your 10%,” says T. J. “20%!” smiles Tuck. However T. J. is not open to the deal as she has her own secret plan to revive her fortunes.
So Tuck goes for a ride out of town with his hired hand Lope (Curtis Arden), an orphan. They meet Professor Horace Bromley (Laurence Naismith), a British palaeontologist looking for fossils in order to prove his “theory of the humanoids”. He shows Tuck a lump of rock containing a fossilised bone. The rock also has some miniature three-toed hoof prints. Bromley’s theory is that these prints belong to an Eohippus, an old species of horse from 50,000,000 years ago, and if the bone is contemporary with the prints then he has proof that mankind is many times older than previously thought. But alas he’s running low on funds. And alcohol.
Back at the rodeo (they move about quickly in this film!) Lope foolishly decides to take on a bull in the ring, as you do. He slips but Tuck comes to his rescue, sustaining an injury in the process. Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), an ex-member of the Gypsy tribe and now a rodeo performer, distracts the bull so Tuck can get to safety. Witnessing Tuck’s selfless act makes T. J. realise what it was she liked about him in the first place. Carlos isn’t best pleased – not only does T. J. owe him money, but he fancies her as well. And they both have high hopes that El Diablo (their new attraction) will be the saviour of the show. But what is El Diablo? All will be revealed!
As she nurses his wounds T. J. demands to know why Tuck left her. “I was ready to sell out and marry you, that’s all I ever wanted,” she declares. “I don’t know,” admits Tuck. “Getting married is like being a horse tied up to a corral.” You can see why T. J. fancies him. She’s a lucky girl all right. She now admits to being amenable to selling Omar. Her new act, she reckons, is going to be a money spinner, and so Omar isn’t needed any more. Tuck is keen to see this new act, and so… cue the next scene! With a music box playing, El Diablo is revealed. Never mind Omar the Wonder Horse, this is El Diablo – the miniature horse:
T. J. unveils a poster describing her latest crowd pleaser – El Diablo will ride a platform on Omar’s back. But whoa, hold on, wait a minute – if T. J. is happy to sell Omar to Buffalo Bill then how will this happen? Let’s overlook that plothole and get back to the action. “A horse dancing on a horse’s back. That’s gotta be a humdinger,” laughs Tuck. Hahaha.
Suspecting that El Diablo is the same species as Bromley’s Eohippus, Tuck sneaks the professor into the enclosure. Bromley is delighted: “What are you doing here over 50,000,000 years after you should be extinct?” he asks of the tiny horse. El Diablo whinnies in response. Bromley thinks he’ll get a knighthood if only he could prove this to be “the greatest scientific discovery of the age.” “The greatest scientific discovery of the age?” echoes Tuck. Both men start thinking aloud about how rich and famous this will make them, if only they can prove the horse’s provenance.
And so off they go to find Carlos, hoping he’ll take them to the Gypsies. Carlos, however, declines. Bromley asks him to be reasonable, but Carlos is having none of it: “Reason is not something my people understand,” he snorts. Tuck and Bromley decide instead to bribe Lope to take them to the Gypsy camp. Tia Zorina is not keen to help, explaining that the horse came from the Forbidden Valley and unless he is returned “a great evil will fall upon us.” “Rubbish!” says Bromley, slapping his thighs in frustration. While Tuck explores the camp, Bromley tells Tia Zorina that he’ll give her the whereabouts of the horse so she can return it to the Forbidden Valley.
The Gypsies turn up that evening to steal the horse. Carlos walks in on the theft and tries to stop it, but is knocked out by a crowbar-wielding dwarf who giggles happily before returning to his task of breaking open the door. As the Gypsies ride off, Tuck turns up and, seeing Carlos regaining consciousness, pursues them. Bromley and Lope also follow. When T. J. and her crew discover Carlos he makes the outrageous claim that Tuck has stolen El Diablo for himself. They assemble a posse and follow Tuck, Bromley and Lope, and the Gypsy tribe off into the desert.
The next morning Tuck catches up with Professor Bromley, who suggests following the Gypsy band in the hope of finding more little horses for T. J. He asks Tuck to shake on their partnership but Tuck, witty guy that he is, responds: “Ah no, professor, I make it a rule never to shake hands with an anxious man.” They stumble upon T. J. and co’s camp where they are captured. Suddenly El Diablo is spotted saying hello to a normal-sized horse:
El Diablo makes a run for it so they give chase. T. J. manages to lasso El Diablo but it escapes through a crack in a rock face. One of the group follows and finds himself in the Forbidden Valley. The group use their horses to pull some boulders out of the way so they can enter the valley on horseback. For some reason one of the group shouts “Hello!” as they ride deeper into the valley. It’s a bad move, really, as suddenly a Pteranodon swoops down and grabs Lope:
Sadly (for the Pteranodon, of course) It finds Lope a bit too heavy and crashes to the ground. Carlos takes care of the creature by breaking its neck:
They spot a small dinosaur (an Ornithomimus, according to Wikipedia, although they call it something else in the film. It makes noises like a baby sloth, if that helps). It makes a run for it and they give chase, thinking it’d be great to have in their show. Suddenly Gwangi, a vicious Allosaurus (which may or may not resemble a Tyrannosaurus, but don’t worry too much about that), makes his first appearance, killing the poor dino and eating it:
One of the posse fires a couple of rounds. This merely annoys Gwangi and he gives chase. At this point a creepy voice intones “Gwangi!” If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll have heard this. What it’s doing in the actual film is… well, this just got weird. The posse find a safe cave to hide out in, but there they realise that their guns are loaded with blanks from the show. Oh no! A bit of a row breaks out as Tuck is accused of being a horse thief, then Lope says it was the professor and the Gypsies, then Carlos is accused of blaming Tuck. Thank goodness T. J. is on hand to cool things down!
T. J. now reveals she’s going to sell up the entire show. How does Tuck feel about this? “All right, T. J.,” he says. “I’ve been looking for something all my life. It took a lot of finding but I finally found it.” T. J. bats her eyelids at this. “The most beautiful ranch you ever saw!” “Ranch?” questions T. J. “Yeah, in Wyoming. We could both sell out.” Well, Tuck, no wonder you’re a babe magnet. “We could raise cattle and horses.” “And kids?” asks T. J. “Yeah… I won’t know until I give it a try.” What a guy!
The next morning Tuck heads off alone to fetch some water. Gwangi inevitably turns up and follows him back to the camp. Tuck falls off his horse, and then Carlos gets pulled off his safe ledge after trying to distract Gwangi with a sack. Tuck gets Gwangi’s attention with a flaming torch so Carlos can return to the safety of the cave. Tuck then has to make a run for it, finding a rocky outcrop from which to hide from Gwangi’s ferocious onslaught:
The circus posse turn up and attach several ropes to Gwangi, but suddenly a Styracosaurus appears, spoiling for a scrap. Gwangi bites through the ropes to free himself. Tuck and the gang ride off, leaving the two creatures to duke it out:
Suddenly Carlos rides in armed with a spear and pierces the side of the Styracosaurus. I’m not sure why. Perhaps he had an upsetting Styracosaurus-related incident as a child:
Gwangi mortally wounds the Styracosaurus and then gives chase as the posse ride past in search of the egress. The camera stays on the Styracosaurus as it breathes its last. Poor fella. Gwangi manages to catch up with Carlos, pulling him off his horse and killing him too. Oh tut tut, Gwangi, Carlos just helped you out, you naughty dinosaur!
The others finally make it out through the hole they originally entered by. Gwangi tries to follow, but as it struggles to get through it dislodges some boulders and is knocked out. At this point a solid “life size” model was used. Apparently Ray Harryhausen wasn’t best pleased with how static it looked. You be the judge:
As they secure the ferocious beast and think about how rich and famous they’re all going to be, they suddenly realise Carlos didn’t make it. Never mind, let’s cut to the next scene immediately where Gwangi is being transported back to the circus. This time he doesn’t seem able to bite through his ropes. He’s probably still got a nasty headache from those boulders:
They stop when Tia Zorina, being led by the dwarf, appears. “It is as I foretold. Gwangi has killed Carlos, just as he killed his brother Miguel.” “Well how’d you know that?” asks Tuck, who presumably hasn’t been paying attention. “In a dream I saw it,” replies Yoda. I mean Tia Zorina. She says the same fate awaits them all unless Gwangi is set free. “Balderdash, my good woman. Balderdash,” says Bromley. And off they go back to the rodeo.
And so the big day is here at last. It’s a sell-out crowd with everybody keen to see the newly dubbed Gwangi the Great! There are balloons and everything, what a wonderful day it’s going to be! Professor Bromley, however, is not pleased. He thinks Gwangi should be given over for scientific research instead of paraded in a cheap circus. T. J. says he can study the creature all he wants, if he follows them on their world tour. Tuck is surprised: “What’s all this about a world tour?” T. J. has it all figured out – London, Paris, Madrid… “You’re forgetting something.” “New York!” “No, Wyoming. Our ranch. We talked about it, remember?” “Yes, but that was before,” replies T. J., dollar signs obscuring her thinking. Suddenly Tuck is disappointed. Perhaps he really did have his heart set on settling down after all. As Tuck leaves, Lope steps up with some good advice: “Señorita, you must go after Señor Kirby. He’s a very proud man, and if he leaves he’ll never come back.” Apart from when he returned at the beginning of the film, right Lope?
Tia Zorina and the dwarf also turn up for the big show. She gives him some instructions and he heads off to Gwangi’s cage, which is screened off from the crowd. As an elephant does some tricks the dwarf (who doesn’t have a name – he’s not listed in the credits either, presumably because his only lines are giggles and screams, so I’d like to give a well deserved shout out to actor Jose Burgos here) sneaks in and begins to loosen the bars on Gwangi’s cage in an effort to free him, but in the process gets killed. Oh Gwangi, always killing those who try to help you!
As the big reveal takes place the crowd breaks into screams at the sight of the dead dwarf. There’s a mad rush for the exits, and in this scramble Tia Zorina is trampled to death. Gwangi pushes out a piece of the cage which falls and crushes Bromley. Gwangi then attacks and kills the poor elephant before going on a rampage through the town:
Everybody makes for the cathedral in the centre of town as Gwangi gives chase. Once inside Tuck helps to close the doors, but Gwangi forces them open:
Everybody runs for the back exit. Tuck urges T. J. and Lope to leave too, but Gwangi traps them behind the organ. Tuck throws a chair at Gwangi, which doesn’t do much, and stabs the big beast in the side of the head with a flag pole. He then throws a bowl of fire (do cathedrals often have bowls of fire?), setting the wooden furnishings ablaze. Gwangi is quickly surrounded by flames:
The trio make their way out, leaving Gwangi to burn to death, screaming all the while. It’s a prolonged, agonising death sequence. The cathedral is now fully ablaze, and as Gwangi’s roars continue the townsfolk watch their cathedral as it burns and crumbles, stained glass windows shattering in the heat. Lope cries. As the blaze continues, “THE END” appears on screen. Fade to black. The end.
3 September 1969.