Director Jon Favreau would like Cowboys and Aliens to be the chocolate and peanut butter of Summer movie blockbusters, but let’s be real here -- it’s just peanut butter. And not even the good kind, but the lumpy, salty “100% all-natural” kind that your grandparents buy in plastic tubs. For those still hungering for a satisfying Cowboys and Fill-In-The-Blank mash-up, I have the remedy. Consider The Valley of Gwangi the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups of films in which cowboys interact with things that cowboys don’t usually interact with (see also: Cowboys and Robots in Westworld, Cowboys and Fred Ward the Time Traveling Biker in Timerider).
The Valley of Gwangi stars James Franciscus as Tuck, a rogue in a traveling Wild West show who wants to buy out his former flame’s (badly dubbed actress Gila Golan as T.J.) competing rodeo. She’s not ready to sell, partly because she hates Tuck’s guts for dumping her, and partly because she’s recently procured a miniature prehistoric horse called an Eohippus from a mysterious, cursed valley. Tuck is, frankly, blown away by her tiny Eohippus. I think we’ve all been there.
The gypsies (or some gypsy/Native American amalgamation) that protect that valley aren’t so happy that the Eohippus is out there, living in a tiny barn on a card table somewhere, and steal the creature from T.J. to return him to the sacred valley (of Gwangi). Tuck and T.J. give chase, along with a gang of delicious dinosaur foodstuffs disguised as cowboys, to retrieve the little horse. It’s super cute, by the way; like an 11 on a 1 to 10 scale of fun-sized horses. Basically, the gypsies’ plan backfires and instead of leaving the valley untouched, they expose the valley to show business people, and, if you’ve ever seen a movie in which things that should never be exploited are shown to show biz people, you’ll know where this is going (see also: “Golden Voice” homeless man Ted Williams).
Tuck and company get big cartoon dollar signs in their eyes when they meet an Allosaurus named Gwangi, who’s a ruthless predator but also bright purple, predicting the eventual popularity of Barney. They decide that what their rodeo really needs is more dinosaurs, and I have to agree. I’d attend more rodeos if I could see a purple Allosaurus, but certainly not if they behaved as poorly as Gwangi does, who eats a few Mexicans (and an elephant) and destroys a mission upon his arrival in the civilized world. This is not how you become a big star, Gwangi (see also: Ally Sheedy).
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but everyone is pretty upset that dinosaurs can’t be viable rodeo attractions by the time the credits roll. Presumably, Tuck and T.J. return to their safe and sound, dino-free world of horse diving and bull fighting and giving each other the stink eye. Lessons are learned and valleys are Gwangied.
It’s all very awesome, especially if you’re a fan of stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, who brings the dinosaurs to life with his typically funky special effects. It’s a weird, exciting film that never had a chance. Management shifts at WarnerBros./Seven Arts apparently doomed The Valley of Gwangi to the B-picture on a double bill with a biker film (according to Wikipedia). Even with that stunted release, the film already felt dated in 1969. While watching, I pegged the film as a relic from the late 1950s, possibly early 60s, due to its love affair with cowboys and the quaint, herky-jerky animated dinos. To find out this film was released just a year after 2001: A Space Odyssey, it makes a sad kind of sense that it never found its audience. The Valley of Gwangi may have been out of fashion before it ever hit the screen.
All the more reason to bring it up now -- if you need to see Cowboys and Something, make it The Valley of Gwangi. And while you’re at it, can somebody remake this thing? I know remakes are the Devil, but this is the perfect kind of film to get remade. It’s a memorable, odd adventure, with an emphasis on special effects, and a great high concept plot that’s ripe for re-examining with modern sensibilities. So, go do it already. Discover The Valley of Gwangi for yourself (but please don’t touch the Eohippus).