Ropin’, Ridin’ & T-REX

Here are two from the vaults of yesteryear, before CGI and computer-enhanced visuals in the hands of Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson eschewed the magic of stop-motion animation, at least for live-action films. Prior to the digital age, when dinosaurs walked on the celluloid screen, fighting each other as well as humans, the giants who made them move were artists like Willis O’Brien (the original King Kong) and his former pupil Ray Harryhausen. They painstakingly handcrafted with clay models and a camera.

Such efforts might seem old-fashioned and outdated to younger audiences, but older viewers can still enjoy and appreciate such films for their fun and their artistry. The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969) might not be the best of the genre, but they should still have plenty of appeal for faithful fans, especially in their new Blu-ray incarnations.

Inspired by a lifelong dream of the great O’Brien to combine cowboys and dinosaurs in a film (a project O’Brien never realized), The Beast of Hollow Mountain was the brainchild of the Nassour brothers, old pros in the B to C range of Hollywood land, with careers dating back to the ’30s. This is probably their most celebrated creation.

Clocking in at 80 minutes running time, the first hour of the film focuses on romantic melodrama South of the Border featuring gringo Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison), Senorita Sarita (Patricia Medina), a bad guy, a little boy, and lots of cattle. The Beast (a hybrid of an allosaurus and a tyrannosaurus) shows up in the last 20 minutes, mostly impressive but occasionally silly, particularly so when he waggles a red forked tongue.

Until the Beast arrives, the best thing going for the film is Madison, a likable, appealing actor best known then as the star of the popular TV Western, The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickcok, co-starring Andy Devine. As Wild Bill, buckskin-clad Madison wore his two six-guns with their butts reversed in the holsters, nonsensical but neat-looking. At one point in The Beast of Hollow Mountain, Madison goes to holster his gun, unconsciously reversing it like he did every week on TV, 1951-’58, as Wild Bill. Apparently, the directors either didn’t notice or didn’t care or, quite possibly, were too conscious of costs to reshoot the scene. It’s a minor gaffe that makes the movie even more fun for observant fans.

The Valley of Gwangi (1969) features much more animation and imagination than its predecessor, but it’s similarly mired in claptrap as far as the human story. It’s not surprising the creatures are the best thing about the movie, since the visual effects were the work of Ray Harryhausen, the stop-motion wizard responsible for such classics as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,It Came from Beneath the Sea,Jason and the Argonauts and many more.

However, the film itself was one of his least successful when it opened, which must have been rather disappointing for Harryhausen, since the seeds of its plot were deliberately attributable (probably a conscious tribute, in fact) to his mentor O’Brien. What’s wrong with Gwangi is the screenplay; it starts with gypsies and curses, morphs into a cowboy-circus flick, then tries to combine all three elements into a hidden-valley-with-dinosaurs adventure, before bringing everyone back to town for the finale.

It doesn’t help that scarcely any of the human characters are particularly likable, though the actors aren’t too bad. James Franciscus (more a TV star at the time) is the somewhat cynical Tuck, who returns to ex-girlfriend T.J. (Gila Golan) who, along with Champ (’50s genre favorite Richard Carlson), is trying to make a go of it with her wild west circus show in Mexico around the turn of the century. The creaky plot enables them to find, fight and rope some dinosaurs (nicely animated and filmed), one of which (Gwangi) they bring back to the circus. Naturally, it gets loose and creates mayhem, just like O’Brien’s King Kong and Harryhausen’s own memorable Ymir in the classic Twenty Million Years to Earth (1957).

Kong met his end on the Empire State Building and the Ymir in the Roman Colosseum—hapless Gwangi is killed in a burning cathedral. Though everyone else wants the dinosaur destroyed, a little boy cries as the flaming building collapses on poor Gwangi. The kid has the right attitude! With the exception of Mighty Joe Young, it seems that all stop-motion animated monsters (the real stars of their films) were doomed to die at the hands of men. It would take Spielberg’s Jurassic Park films to finally give the luckless beasts a break.

Though certainly not classics, The Beast of Hollow Mountain and The Valley of Gwangi are nonetheless vivid reminders of a nearly forgotten form of movie magic.