Every Sunday this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Cowboys & Aliens. That is some seriously high-concept shit right there. How are you supposed to even start competing with cowboys & aliens? How about with cowboys & dinosaurs?
I belatedly realised that I have somehow managed to never review a Ray Harryhausen movie on this blog before, despite having a regard for that man and his talents that borders on the religious. Perhaps that's the very reason I've never done it; and besides, though his legend is vast, his actual output consists of only 16 feature films, and for the most part, they're not the kind of movie you'd necessarily want to revisit for any reason other than Harryhausen's gorgeous work.

The younger folks among my readers - and as I stop and reflect on the fact that the 91-year-old has been effectively retired since before I was born, "younger" probably doesn't mean what I think it does - may perhaps have no idea what the hell I'm talking about. Nothing more and nothing less than the finest single practitioner of the art of visual effects in all the history of cinema, a man who at 13 years of age was so inspired by Willis O'Brien's iconic stop-motion work in creating the title character in King Kong that he began to train himself to become an animator, eventually finding himself filling the role of O'Brien's protégé, serving as his assistant on Mighty Joe Young in 1949; within 20 years Harryhausen had gone on to create some of the most indelible fantasy effects ever seen, doing virtually all of the work of animating puppets and compositing effects himself. You will often hear it said that his then-groundbreaking work in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts, to name just two, has becoming amusingly quaint in this CGI age of ours, and to that, I reply "fuck off and die in a fire"; no, these effects are not "realistic", but they've aged well: a decade on, the once bleeding-edge effects in the likes of The Phantom Menace or Spider-Man are starting to look a bit ratty, while a half of a century separates us from the skeleton fight in Jason and the Argonauts now, and that's still one of the most completely balls-out awesome things I have ever seen in a lifetime of watching popcorn movies. Sure, you can see the seams, but there's a physical presence to those seams that makes them a hundred times more valuable than the weightless digital shells larding up our theaters nowadays; and if nothing else, the fact that one man was able to crank out work that smooth and ambitious and playful is all by itself impressive enough that his films continue to deserve respect and will continue to deserve respect long after tomorrow's schoolchildren are suffering through our bloated popcorn epics and wondering why in the hell we ever thought they looked halfway decent.

Now, all that being said, most of Harryhausen's films - and we call them that, "Harryhausen's films", though he wrote only his Sinbad trilogy, produced a few others, and never directed anything but shorts in his entire career, and the mere fact we do that is telling - are not by themselves strong enough to stand up to much critical thought. Jason is a "good" movie, and maybe a couple of others if one is in a generous mood, but for the most part his films are matinee tripe, with perfunctory scripts, blandly proficient acting, and painfully clichéd scenarios, and we forgive these things, we who love them, because they provide us with lots of chances to linger and coo over Harryhausen's effects.

And at this point, I will finally address the subject of the day, being 1969's The Valley of Gwangi, for it is, honestly, kind of a lousy film even by these lowered standards. Criminally, it takes ages and ages - 45 minutes or about that long in a 96-minute movie - until we start to get any good Harryhausen work, and up to that point, the film is a relentlessly dull Western that is at best inoffensively cheesy viewed today; at the time of its release, when the film flopped hard, it must have seemed inscrutably ossified and archaic. This was a year after Once Upon a Time in the West and the same year as The Wild Bunch, and in that context, The Valley of Gwangi looks like the work of insane people, for its sort of kiddie-friendly B-Western fluffiness was a good 15 years out of date by the time the movie came out.

Little wonder, for the idea was itself a solid 25 years old by that point. It was Willis O'Brien himself, actually, who first hit upon the notion of using his craft to make a movie in which cowboys squared off against dinosaurs, and even in 2011, you don't need to ask why he thought such a thing. Though in 2011, it would probably best to pitch a three-way battle between cowboys, dinosaurs, and ninjas, just to be safe. Anyway, Harryhausen finally saw his mentor's dream to completion, seven years after O'Brien's death, and took an associate producer credit along the way; none of this makes it any less creaky or goofy, but it at least covers it with a patina of sweetness and charm.

So, the movie: in the first decade of the 20th Century, roughly, there is a band of Gypsies running through the hills of Mexico. Yes, Gypsies. Yes, Mexico. Anyway, one of their number is carrying a burlap bag that keeps twitching and making noises, and he ends up dropping down dead in a mud pit; this is apparently due to some manner of curse involving the contents of that bag, according to the withered and ancient Tia Zorina (Freda Jackson), a woman who wears a patch over her right eye despite also being blind in the left eye, for reasons that almost certainly owe more to the desire to make her memorable than hew to any sort of costuming logic, and, mission accomplished.

Post-credits, we head over to the Breckenridge Wild West Show, where Miss T.J. Breckenridge (Gila Golan) entertains a small crowd with staged cowboy-and-Indian fights, and a bit where she dives into a fire-ringed pool of water from three stories up, on horseback. The show is not doing as well as it might, and that's the cue for her ex, Tuck Kirby (James Franciscus) to show up with a plan to buy her out, but there's enough bad blood between the two of them that she can barely keep it together long enough to insult him before throwing him out on his ass. Wandering around town looking for some other get-rich-quick-scheme, Tuck finds a crafty orphan huckster named Lope (Curtis Arden), who bonds to the older con man instantly, and introduces him to Professor Bromley (Laurence Naismith), an archaeologist who has just found a remarkable fossil specimen of the ancient, dog-sized horse Eohippus. Big deal: Tuck learns that same night that T.J. has a living Eohippus in her show (it is for a long time the only Harryhausen animation in the movie), and she's certain that once she premieres him to the world, her fortunes will turn around.

In no time flat, that horse ends up at the center of all kinds of trouble: T.J. wants it for her show, Tuck wants to sell it at a huge profit, Bromley wants to use it as his ticket to international glory and fame among all the scientists, and the Gypsies still want to return it to the Forbidden Valley whence it came; and that gives Bromley a great idea: give the Eohippus to the Gypsies and follow them to the valley, because if there's one 45-million-years-extinct horse to be found there, God knows what other scientific treasures are hiding. So he, Tuck, T.J. and her crew, including manager Champ (Richard Carlson) and Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), the brother of the same man who died in the first scene, and the reason the horse ended up with T.J. in the first place, all end up getting to the impossibly high ring of mountains around this valley in shifts, and that is the 45 minutes I spoke of, and it is really, really boring. Franciscus, despite being best known as not-Charlton Heston in Beneath the Planet of the Apes, is actually a fairly decent B-movie actor, and he portrays Tuck with a genial air that makes the character's constant, barely-veiled assholism almost charming (oh yes, that's the other thing: just about every character in the movie is kind of an asshole with the most venal goals in the world). But other than Franciscus, none of the people in the movie and none of the things they do are terribly interesting at all; just hokey matinee nonsense about silly British scientists and inexplicable Gypsies.

And then, in the valley of Gwangi, we see the dinosaurs (Gwangi himself is an Allosaurus, and how anybody knew he was in there to give him that name, the movie does not care to explain). These are not, it must be immediately confessed, the pinnacle of Ray Harryhausen's art: the prehistoric monsters in One Million Years B.C. (his film immediately preceding this one) certainly look a lot better; the animals in Gwangi are immaculately sculpted, but they have oddly undetailed color: each of the featured dinos is basically one single block of undifferentiated blue, pink, or purple. Colors that dinosaurs are not now and were not then thought to come in, though partially because they're so peculiar-looking, they therefore have that extra frisson of movie magic about them. The animation, however, is as good as it needs to be, and the process shots are just about as ambitious and difficult and well-executed as anything in Harryhausen's career. Sure, you can see how it's done, but it's being done so well! And anyway, some of the trickiest shots, like one of cowboys holding actual ropes that connect to model ropes around the model dinosaur, look so close to perfect it's not worth quibbling.

Anyway, in no small part because we finally have ourselves those dinos we were promised, the second half of The Valley of Gwangi is a damn sight perkier than the first: the expected Lost World shenanigans give way to the expected Bring the Big Deadly Animal to the City shenanigans, and after idling along as a horribly impersonal Western for so long, the filmmakers (incidentally, the film was directed by Jim O'Connolly and written by William E. Bast and Julian More, for all that it matters) do a surprisingly good job of combining the tropes of matinee cowboys with the equally strict rules of rampaging monsters. It's a hoot to see an Allosaur fighting men on horses, and knocking things over in a picturesque little border town, not least because it is incongruous. It cannot be said that the movie gets any less silly; in fact, it arguably gets more silly, as the angry old Gypsy woman commands her dwarf (Jose Burgos) to free Gwangi for completely inexplicable reasons. But the silliness is no long the aimless kind that plagues the melodrama of the first 45 minutes: it is the pointed, driven silliness of a movie that knows it's stupid, and knows we love it for being stupid, and knows that we secretly kind of think it's extremely cool even through the stupidity.

The Valley of Gwangi is a totally disposable piece of fluff, and maybe best thought of as one of the pictures to get out of the way later rather than sooner when you decide to see everything Ray Harryhausen did; and yet there's something wholly appealing about it anyway. It's gratifying to see a movie that doesn't want to be more than it is, and sets itself to being the best version of itself, although it never ceases to frustrate me that unlike most of the maestro's films, where his artistry is showcased throughout, we only have that admittedly well-done horse to carry us through for so long. Cowboys vs. dinosaurs is a golden idea, cowboys vs. Gypsies a bit less so, and cowboys vs. their ex-girlfriends least of all; but once Gwangi picks up, it's an absolute ball, the kind of tossed-off ephemera that does right by the 8-year-old hiding inside all of us.