At Home, BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE VALLEY OF GWANGI (WB Archive Collection)

By • Apr 13th, 2017 •

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BluRay review by Roy Frumkes

To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection (www.wbshop.com)

Certain effects shots in this film are among the best things Harryhausen’s ever done. MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, 20,000,000 MILES TO EARTH and THE 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD are equally extraordinary effects films, but that shot (1:00.30) where the dinosaur appears from behind a rock formation in the distance as Franciscus is filling his canteen – the visual match-up of harsh sunlight coming through dust-laden air on both the model and the real Western desert landscape is perfect beyond belief. I’ve run it (that scene) countless times, often in my film history classes, and it has never looked better than it does on the WB Archive BluRay. One might worry, in fact, that it could be too sharp, thus exposing the illusion. But no, you’re safe. You can pick it up.

Not all the stop motion animation pleases me as much as the title character’s does. There’s a little Eohippus trotting around, and it looks disconcertingly like a stuffed Steiff toy. That occasionally happens with Harryhausen’s models. But dinosaurs work well with his gifts, as do flying reptiles, Cyclops, skeletons and extraterrestrial creatures.

As Harryhausen aficionados are well aware, this was a particular labor of love for him, as it was a story initiated several decades earlier, and never filmed, by his mentor, Willis (KING KONG [1933], THE [1925] LOST WORLD) O’Brien. GWANGI is a delightful hybrid of genres, with cowboys lasso-ing primeval reptiles. There was a taste of O’Brien’s original test footage from his abandoned project in MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, with cowboys attempting to rope a giant gorilla, so it has an antecedent from 1949. But this is more sweeping, more grandiose in Technicolor, and a great homage to the dean of stop motion work.

On the BluRay cover, the dinosaur is a greenish hue, which works. On the back cover its skin has more of a brownish tone, also acceptable. As to the film itself, I’m told by filmmaker/artist/special effects expert David Rosler: “Then-recent film stocks affected how the film read the color temperature of the rear projector light source, and when the lab color-corrected the shots so that the second generation effect shots matched the overall color of the non-effect shots, the color of the creative elements – dinosaurs, etc. – put in front of the rear projection screen tended to go blue. To complicate matters further, color correction in the film lab was invented to compensate for the color of daylight particularly, which changes over the course of the day, despite the best use of filters. In this case, that meant that when the backgrounds were all made uniform, Gwangi and his dinosaur pals (and the miniatures on which they stand) tend to be sometimes wildly inconsistent in color from shot to shot ranging from greenish to purple. None of that was Ray’s fault, as you could only filter the light from the projector a little before you crush the intermediate tones.” I have to admit I was distracted by the unnatural skin tones, but the WB Archive restoration department has done its best to equalize the various shades of blue.

I’m not sure why Harryhausen and producer Charles Schneer chose Jim O’Connolly as director of the live action. He takes a slightly heavy-handed approach to the performances – earnest if not particularly warm. I met co-star Gila Golan back in the early ‘60s when she was promoting SHIP OF FOOLS, and she seemed a lovely person. The 4K delivery system makes her dubbing even more apparent, though whoever provided the replacement voice did a remarkable job of lip-synching, or perhaps more probably, voice-looping.

I believe that next to his stop motion creations, Harryhausen loved filmmusic best. So many of the great composers supplied his sound tracks – Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Mario Nascimbene, Laurie Johnson, Laurence Rosenthal, Roy Budd, and for this one, Jerome Moross. Of the many scores provided for his films, this is one of the weaker offerings. Moross seems clearly uncertain how to capture the fantasy world unfolding before him. I understand that he was probably chosen, correctly, to augment the cowboys-and-dinosaurs sequences because of his great score for the epic style western THE BIG COUNTRY. But the best he does here is to reprise some of the glorious cues from that film’s score. Still, it is rousing.

The sequence in the end, when Gwangi enters the local church and burns to death, is a lot of skilled fun, and the track delivers the echo-ie sounds of the monster growling and roaring as it is consumed in the inferno. At one point, lifting its head up, it shrieks, and a stained-glass window in the background shatters. I asked Harryhausen if that was intended to be a gag — opera singers’ and dinosaurs’ voices being high enough to shatter glass. But he smiled and assured me that it was just a co-incidence.

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