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The Valley of Gwangi (1969) on the Big Screen

By Katherine Aitchison, on 28 June 2012

It started with a tiny horse. The tiniest horse you’ve never seen. Probably because it died out 50 billion years ago and was actually a living fossil which pointed the way to a valley full of bloodthirsty dinosaurs ready to break out into the real world at the first sign of human intervention.

No, this wasn’t the latest breakthrough in genetic engineering; it was in fact the penultimate event in the Grant Museum’s Silly Season and the latest film to be given the “on the Big Screen” treatment.

Introduced by Dr Joe Cain (UCL Science and Technology Studies), The Valley of Gwangi is a moralistic tale of what happens when greed gets the better of us and makes us deaf to the warnings of slightly crazy, blind gypsy ladies and sends us off looking for things which shouldn’t exist. Think Jurassic Park with cowboys.

It was special effects genius Ray Harryhausen’s last foray into the world of dinosaur films, partly because the interaction between dinosaurs and humans was so difficult to create that he couldn’t face it again.

I arrived early for the screening and I was glad that I did, by the time the lights went down the JZ Young lecture theatre was full to the brim which only goes to show the popularity of these film nights and the devoted following they have garnered.

Introducing the film, Dr Cain desperately tried to come up with some facts to enhance our viewing experience but as he had to admit himself, the film is one of a kind and a bit, well, “crappy”.

The most disturbing fact he shared with us was that Gwangi was filmed before the days of animal protection which led to an audible wince from the audience every time a horse fell over (which was often). Another fact, slightly more relevant to the Grant Museum’s ethos (and close to organiser Jack Ashby’s heart): Gwangi is also one of only a handful of films to feature a fossilised mammal.

The film itself takes a while to get going, the first half an hour is spent establishing the love triangle involving the two lead characters and setting up the story by introducing an eccentric English palaeontologist who is able to explain the relevance of the tiny horse and spends the rest of the film uttering such classic exclamations as “By George” and “Great Scott”.

There then follows a hilarious case of mistaken identity and a fantastic chase scene in which the knee-high equine manages to outrun a group of supposedly expert cowboys. This is of course where the dinosaurs make their appearance and I don’t think I’d be giving anything away by saying there is some considerable bloodshed and a spot more chasing/running away.

Running away being one of the film’s key themes, Dr Cain had us well prepared: before pressing play he taught us some cowboy lingo and had us all shouting “Giddy-up” and “Hee-yah!” when the stars leapt to their mounts. (For anyone who may be unfamiliar with the terms, they denote different degrees of peril, giddy-up meaning “let’s go”, and hee-yah being the more urgent; “let’s go fast, there’s a dinosaur behind us”.)

And so what became of Gwangi the T-Rex in the title role? Well you’ll have to watch the film to find out but the ending is sure to have you rubbing your eyes in disbelief.

The film may pale in comparison to modern day monster epics but given its 1969 release date, the effects are easier to appreciate. The storyline itself is fairly familiar but stands out because it is greedy businessmen as opposed to renegade scientists who unleash havoc upon an unsuspecting nation.

If you’re like me and love a good creature feature, especially those with stilted dialogue, implausible storylines and aged special effects (and let’s face it, who doesn’t) then this is the film for you. And if you love a good creature feature with an educational introduction and a free glass of wine, then get yourself down to the Grant Museum’s next Big Screen event when the programme returns in the autumn. I’ll see you there!

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