From Harryhausen to the House of Hammer, it’s a Warner Archive Stop-Motion Dino Double-Feature!
The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a streaming service, revivals of out-of-print DVDs, and Blu-ray discs (which, unlike the DVDs, are factory pressed rather than burned). Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!
Warner Archive recently released both The Valley Of Gwangi and When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth onto Blu-ray, and naturally these seemed an obvious double feature for The Archivist! Originally released about a year apart, they’re actually quite different films in most respects — a family-friendly adventure set in modern times and a lurid, primeval Hammer fantasy — but they’ve both got one thing where it counts: stop-motion dinosaur action.
The Valley of Gwangi (1969)
These days genre mashups have become familiar entertainment, but I wonder how audiences must have reacted to a dinosaur western nearly a half century ago. Beloved animator Ray Harryhausen’s stop motion effects were applied to The Valley of Gwangi, an incredibly fun and colorful Mexico-set adventure about a group of cowboys who find themselves running from Mesozoic monsters.
As with similar films like The Lost World or their descendant Jurassic Park, the motley group of characters is made of up people who are there for different reasons — science, adventure, and greed.
The group acts on clues and rumors of a Forbidden Valley whispered among the rural locals, a place full of biological oddities. What they find is a sort of enclosed canyon, blocked off from the world by its high walls (sort of the geographical opposite of the Lost World’s plateau). But they’re not prepared for what they find.
(spoiler: it’s dinosaurs)
Some of the film’s memorable and celebrated sequences include a pterodactyl attack, a fight between a T-rex and triceratops, and the cowboys attempting to lasso and corral the dinos. Eventually the film moves into a “let’s bring one back” finale that looses the T-Rex, dubbed Gwangi, in a Mexican village, cribbed from King Kong and itself echoed in The Lost World: Jurassic Park.
The Valley of Gwangi is a very enjoyable film that showcases Harryhausen’s incredible animation and remains a science-fiction classic — and unlike a lot of older sci-fi, this one still feels eminently watchable. It’s also a really cool glimpse of the dino-DNA that would rule the movie world decades later with the Jurassic Park franchise.
Speaking of ruling the Earth…
When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth (1970)
When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth, from beloved Hammer Studios, was their spiritual successor to 1966’s One Million Years B.C., and similarly a prehistoric fantasy about a buxom, leather-clad cave-woman. Less famous but every bit as stunning as Raquel Welch, Victoria Vetri (aka Playboy Playmate Angela Dorian) takes over lead duties in this strange film directed by schlockmeister Val Guest.
The blurb on the Blu-ray package spells out a detailed plot about a superstitious prehistoric cult who sacrifices blondes because they fear the moon. One of them escapes and is rescued by some fishermen, becoming the center of tribal conflict and agitator in a love triangle. While I can’t deny that this is what unfolds, it’s certainly not laid out in such revelatory detail. The characters all speak in a limited fictional vocabulary, deemphasizing the verbal aspect of storytelling and inviting the viewer to simply watch as events unfold and try to keep up.
Sanna (Vetri) falls in with handsome fisherman Tara (Robin Hawdon), incurring the wrath of another woman Ayak (Imogen Hassall), apparently his erstwhile mate. When her old tribe comes sniffing around, she takes off into dino-infested territory. What follows is sort of the prehistoric version of Logan’s Run, with Sanna and Tara on the lam in a “you and me against the world” scenario.
All the dinosaur stuff is really great, with lots of cool stop-motion sequences. The model work and animation is detailed and a delight to watch. One of the more inspired bits has Sanna crawl into a hatched dinosaur egg for shelter, only to get adopted by the mother when it finds her. There’s one very brief oddball scene which uses live animals, with what appear to be a crocodile and komodo dragon (with fins and such glued on to look more prehistorically exotic) actually getting into a tussle and gnawing on each other. It’s not gruesome or particularly violent, but some viewers may find it upsetting.
This Blu-ray presentation features the original, unrated cut of the film (apparently the modified theatrical version somehow merited a G rating back in the day). The uncut form has a couple brief shots of nudity, most notably during a completely extraneous near-rape scene which only merits “near” status because of a convenient last-second consent after a struggle. While the film only engages in very brief shots of stark nudity, it’s constantly teased throughout with lots of what we might these days call fan-service: busty women in leather bikinis, voyeuristic camera work, and a splish-splashy catfight on the beach.
When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is a lot of fun, but clearly the lesser film in this particular pairing. The linguistic stuff probably the weakest aspect — while I really like the idea of presenting a sort of mysterious or naturalistic glimpse of this culture, the execution of the language is is so halting, repetitive, and limited in vocabulary that it rings false and feels silly.
I generally disapprove of the term “guilty pleasure”, but this is a case where it actually feels rather appropriate.
The Valley of Gwangi and When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth are recent Blu-ray releases from the Warner Archive Collection, available now. Both discs come in typical Blu-ray cases and include subtitles and trailers.
It’s worth noting that When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth is the uncut version only. Additionally, I usually watch movies with subtitles but I’d recommend (for non-deaf viewers) not using them on this film — they only served to highlight how limited the fictional vocabulary was.
Special Features and Extras — The Valley Of Gwangi
A few bonuses are included — the trailer is in HD, but the other extras are older 4:3 SD materials with scanlines.
Return to the Valley (8:04)
Harryhausen and others discuss the film’s effects and legacy
Gwangi and Vanessa (1:03)
A brief story snippet from a Harryhausen interview
Special Features and Extras — When Dinosaurs Ruled The Earth
Get it at Amazon:
Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have slight compression inherent to file formats. All package photography was taken by the reviewer.