Normally, we (wrongly in my opinion) refer to films as “belonging” to their directors. But when it comes to Ray Harryhausen, the films belong to the stop-motion animator. And rightly so! No one goes to see these films for the acting and mise en scène. They go for the cool effects.
This isn’t to say that the writing and directing aren’t good. They usually are. But they are subservient to the effects. That’s well on display in The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
It tells the story of TJ who runs a wild west show. Also working in the show is Tuck, a bad-boy type who used to be involved with TJ. Because of Tuck’s behavior toward the young Lope, TJ comes to see that Tuck is worthy of her affections.
If you’ve seen the film before, this probably doesn’t sound familiar. What happens inside that narrative is that they discover a tiny extinct horse, Eohippus, which leads them to the Forbidden Valley, where dinosaurs are everywhere.
They capture a Tyrannosaurus and bring it back to feature it in the show. But, as usually happens in film, the creature gets loose, runs around scaring people, and dies.
There are weird aspects to the film that can only be explained by its commitment to effects. For example, many scenes go on far too long. And the motivation of the T-Rex seems odd. Twice it kills a big yummy animal only to abandon it to run off after humans.
The effects are great. The biggest problem is that the back-projection is often obvious. Of course, this is true of many films of that period — including most Hitchcock films where it is done for very little effect.
I prefer to see this rather than CG films where the overall look of the film is dictated by what the effects require. Here, every shot is Technicolor garish — the way films were supposed to be in the 1960s.
I still prefer practical effects to animation. And there are some here. But mostly, it is all about the stop-motion animals.
I find it odd to put a cowboy film together with monsters. In the case of The Valley of Gwangi, it’s hard not to think you are watching two films. Tonally, they are different. The monsters are loads of fun — and very engaging. The western is serious and sweet.
Personally, I like Jason and the Argonauts better. But it is the oddness of The Valley of Gwangi that makes it great and worth viewing multiple times.
The Valley of Gwangi on Disc
The Valley of Gwangi is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Archive. They both have the same limited extras: a short featurette, a brief story told by Harryhausen, and the trailer. But the quality of the Blu-ray, in particular, makes it worth owning.
 Note that the script apparently says it is an Allosaurus. However, the creature on the screen is clearly too big for that. Image taken from the film under Fair Use.