I first saw The Valley Of Gwangi in 1973 or 1974, well after its 1969 release. I was about 5 or 6. It remained my absolute favourite film of all time until I saw Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) a year or two later.
I went on a summer afternoon. My older brother took me. Sean was my advisor in all things marvellous and adventuresome, and it’s possible that, were it not for his influence, I’d be an accountant at some fertilizer company, rather than day-in, day-out trying to build castles in the sky – or outer space – and make a living in them.
We lived in Minot, North Dakota then, Minot Air Force Base, a main base for the Strategic Air Command’s B-52 deterrent. A cold, cold place in a cold, cold war. My dad’s day job was to fly in the belly of a B-52 across the Pacific Ocean to the Soviet Union, say hi, hang a louie, and then return home – ideally without receiving orders to continue into the Asian continent toward targets whose names were conveniently located in the seatback pocket in front of him (a seatback pocket with a couple padlocks on it, of course). Yes, just like in Dr. Strangelove (1964). In those days, the USSR and the USA had both made a commitment to send the planet back to the prehistoric era, providing certain eventualities came into being.
While my dad plowed the skies in a bomber heavy with thermonuclear weapons, I was hitting the peak of dino-fever. Dino-fever is like chicken pox – almost every child catches it. If you don’t manage to catch it until you’re an adult, well, it can be quite dangerous and cause you to develop weirdness. I caught it early, but have never recovered from it. The world of the early 1970′s conspired to make my dinosaur baptism vivid and indelible. It was at this same time that National Geographic published a set of four high-quality hardback children’s books. One of them was simply called “Dinosaurs” – the others in the set were about killer whales or spiders or some stupid thing. The book featured dramatic prose descriptions of Mesozoic life, illustrated by paintings done by National Geographic veterans. It was the time of the Sinclair Oil dinosaur – ubiquitous in the American prairie states. And it seemed so marvellous to me at 5 years old that something as serious and grown-up as gasoline station should fly high a brontosaurus mascot. And it was the time – oh, most marvellously – of Aurora’s “Prehistoric Scenes” model kits. Aurora’s scarlet-plastic Pteranodon model, featuring an optional torn wing for super-realistic dino-combat, was the first of many of those kits that I longed for and collected and fussed over and played with until they were plastic shrapnel.
Comic book ad for the drool-worthy Prehistoric Scenes model kits
I suppose the screening must have been a special kids show at the base theatre. We walked there over baked brown grass under a sky cross-hatched with vapour trails and punctuated with sonic booms. I insisted on calling the movie “The Valley of THE Gwangi”. He wasn’t just any Gwangi, he was THE Gwangi. And maybe I thought it scanned better than “The Valley Of Gwangi”. Kids make music naturally, and dinosaur movie titles have always been the best playground for the poetic alchemy of childhood – “The VAL-ley OF the GWAN-gi”. Gwangi was majestic and eternal – he deserved poetry. I think I called it “The Valley Of The Gwangi” until I was confronted with seeing the original movie poster in my mid-20′s and just couldn’t for the life of me find a second article in there.
Cowboys and dinosaurs. There could have been no better movie experience in heaven or earth. When you’re very young, you’re inclined to swallow everything you see onscreen, but Ray Harryhausen’s prehistoric beasts seemed to me – even at that young age – TRUE. I had the thought “Yes. That’s exactly right. That’s exactly the way dinosaurs are supposed to look and move and sound.” Of course, in reality, it’s not. Harryhausen’s dinosaurs don’t really even match the paleontological knowledge of the day. In fact, during production, there was even a certain amount of vagueness over whether Gwangi was a Tyrannosaurus Rex or an Allosaurus. But the dinosaurs in Gwangi seemed to correspond to what was in my imagination, and that is always the most important thing in filmmaking – reality not as it really is, but how we deeply believe it is. Ray Harryhausen’s creations weren’t lumbering, walnut-brained juggernauts. They lived, they burned. They were hungry. Even the choice of making Gwangi’s skin color a deep indigo gave him an extra edge, a uniqueness, a personality.
That The Valley Of Gwangi appears to be a remake of King Kong (1933) should be no surprise considering the film was originally a project by Ray Harryhausen’s spiritual forerunner, the special effects genius Willis O’Brien, who created all the ground-breaking effect for King Kong. Willis’s original idea had cowboys finding dinosaurs in the Grand Canyon, rather than the semi-mythical Mexican wasteland in the final film. Willis O’Brien didn’t live to see the completion of Gwangi.
The Valley Of Gwangi was filmed in Spain and a certain European flavour rubbed off on the movie. The old gypsy crone and her dwarf son are elements out of the Old World, quite bizarre in a Mexican setting and Gwangi’s appearance in a bull-ring carnival show, which also features an elephant, definitely doesn’t feel like Mexico.
The film’s conclusion, featuring Gwangi hunting down our heroes inside a cathedral – not to mention the finale of his spectacular, operatic demise by fire – is among the best endings of any monster movie ever made. And the symbolism of the church against an ancient dragon certainly comes out of Old World Catholicism.
The Valley Of Gwangi was THE dinosaur film until Spielberg’s monster-masterpiece Jurassic Park (1993). Perversely, I avoided Jurassic Park when it was released. I finally saw it projected, almost a year later, at the New Beverly Cinema in L.A. The New Beverly is beloved. It’s a beautiful old temple. But state-of-the-art viewing experience is not what comes to mind when you think about filmgoing at the New Bev. I was knocked out by Jurassic Park, even on the coke-splashed screen at the New Bev, with its inferior sound system and seats like something out of a WWII-era cargo plane. But I bought the deluxe CAV laserdisc set soon after and watched the movie relentlessly.
Spielberg directly lifts Gwangi’s introductory scene moment for moment in Jurassic Park. In The Valley Of Gwangi, the cowboy explorers are chasing an Ornitholestes – indistinguishable, in movie terms, from Jurassic Park’s Gallimimus – and suddenly the film’s eponymous carnivore pops out of nowhere and snatches the fleet-footed animal up in its jaws. Our first daylight glimpse of Jurassic Park’s Tyrannosaurus Rex mimics the moment beautifully, with the T. Rex bursting into the open and snatching up a Gallimimus.
What perverse inner quirk – like a chip on my shoulder – kept me from seeing Jurassic Park when it came out? That movie had been made for me and there was no doubt that it was going to deliver the Mesozoic goods. I can only guess that I couldn’t bring myself to let go of Gwangi, my first great love.
One last “Gwangi” confession: When I was a teen, and a rabid gamer, I ran a Boot Hill “Valley Of Gwangi” adventure. Boot Hill was TSR’s Wild West pen & paper role playing game. I firmly believe I am the only person alive to have run a Boot Hill “Valley Of The Gwangi” RPG adventure.
Spielberg's homage to The Valley Of Gwangi in Jurassic Park
Just last week I was confessing that I didn’t see “Jurassic Park” (1993) until a year after it was released – and that I finally saw it at the New Beverly Cinema. And this week, Sherman Torgan, owner & operator of the New Beverly died of a sudden heart attack during his regular bike ride in Santa Monica at the age of 63.
At first I thought it was a noteworthy synchronicity, but then I realized that I mention the New Beverly so often in talking about my Los Angeles past that, at any given time, mention of the theater is ever only a few blog posts away.
At the beginning of the month, I’d swing by the New Beverly to get a new schedule – usually parking illegally on Detroit – usually snatching up a couple extras just in case someone else I knew wanted one. Nobody ever did want one, but that never stopped me. Occasionally, the floor of my car would have a few months worth of old New Beverly schedules strewn among the empty cigarette packs and unpaid parking tickets – tickets probably received near the New Beverly.
It was always exciting reading the schedule, circling all the movies you were planning on seeing – ignoring the fact that you were likely to get to a bare handful of them. But it was great to know that you COULD see them, if you wanted to – or that, if not you, at least someone was seeing them.
One of the great joys of my life has been attending movies by myself. It hasn’t always been voluntary. It’s not as easy to get people to come out to a screening of “The Valley Of Gwangi” (1969) as you would think. I have spent many nights alone at the New Beverly, and can still recall that calm clear joy of leaving the theater anonymously, strolling through the dark to my car, probably parked on Detroit, driving home with my mind blown my some cinematic revelation.
But one of the great treats the New Bev offered was seeing again, and again and again, all those movies that I loved, packing buttered popcorn and a diet coke on top of a belly full of El Coyote.
I once saw “Lawrence Of Arabia” (1962) at the New Beverly – which baffled my friends at the time. Why watch the quintessential widescreen movie in such an obviously inferior viewing space. Why? Because you have to jump at every opportunity to see “L of A” projected. And seeing “L of A” projected, even at the New Beverly, via a chewed-up print, was still an experience light years ahead of seeing it on my big screen tv.
I saw “Picnic At Hanging Rock” (1975), which bowled me over when I first saw it at school years previously – and was ecstatic to find that the movie was even better than I had remembered.
I saw “The Hunger” (1983) for the thousandth time – which is, you know … well, it is what it is. It’s Tony Scott’s best movie.
I – with every other cineaste in Los Angeles – lamented the physical state of the New Beverly. There was that famous soft drink stain in the middle of the screen. And though I never actually saw a rat or a cockroach, I believed in them. I believed they were there – watching. Time and again, my friends and I would have the conversation: “A bunch of filmmakers should get together to renovate the New Beverly. As a service to the filmmaking and filmgoing community. A new screen and sound system and new projector or two? Why, it’s chump change to some of these guys!”, etc. And I certainly was not the only guy in Hollywood who imagined including the New Beverly in his Oscar acceptance gratitude list, or fantasized that he’d renovate it with money out of his own pocket with state of the art equipment and subsidize ticket sales too so that they were actually cheaper than their already ridiculously low $6 double feature.
Most industry support seemed to fall in the direction of the Aero Theatre, because – let’s face it – it was in Santa Monica. And though I do appreciate the Aero’s helping to widen the net of the American Cinematheque, how many times a year can you really watch “Manhattan” and “Sunset Blvd”?
Sherman’s family has closed the New Beverly Cinema until further notice. I’ve lived in London since last fall, and am likely to be here for some time, so the future state of the New Beverly won’t affect my day-to-day experience much. But I hope Sherman Torgan’s New Beverly will remain with us. It was his New Beverly, wasn’t it?
I saw Sherman repeatedly on the other side of the glass, rarely said more than “One, please” to him. What a profound and long-lasting effect this man I never spoke to had on me and on virtually ever other serious filmmaker east of Sepulveda. I said it before, and I’ll say it again, Sherman’s death really is a significant landmark in L.A. cinema – and for, I would argue, cinema around the world.
This sea at the shore of seas, Where other seas begin, Where is conceived the great Pangaea of seas. Panthalassa! that stretch three quarters of the way into the future,
This sea, pubescent, Horny and tempestuous And desiring increase at every level, Ingenious and bursting at the seams, Throwing up all kinds of mad ideas, Shimmying, shimmering with milky life, Not yet self-conscious, unshy, reckless Grand-roiling stinking-green and then some,
What joyful possibilities and probabilities You had, before rhythm and the seasons And the practice of five hundred million years And filling the forms And seeking your own level And overthinking it
Brought you to that staid middle age In which the best trick You can conjure Is a mere blue whale.
Marooned on the mysterious Eye Sockets Island, I seek safety in a tunnel while fanged Terrible Lizards lurk outside. The cave is damp and darkish and scrawled with the most upsetting graffiti imaginable. Fortunately, I have brought my Jude The Obscure series of action-adventure novels.
One of y’all had asked for more stories and not so many faggy poems and whiny political rants and breezy rambles about my L.A. lifestyle. Happily, in the next weeks I’m making available a few short stories. They’ll be available here, and I’ll also have links to them on the “fictions” link at nealromanek.com.
I may even podcast them for those of you who can’t read. And the blind too. I podcast for the blind.
We’re still waiting for word back from the Comic-Con 2006 crew as to whether or not we will have our Writers Table at the show (July 20 – 23) – “we” being myself and Warren Hsu Leonard of Screenwriting Life. Apparently, Comic-Con have had a record number of applications and there is much back-log and log-jam and back-jam. But time grows short. I grow anxious. I may have to make some calls. Or at least call Warren and have him make some calls.
Comic-Con is a great place for artists and illustrators to meet other artists and illustrators. In fact, you can’t swing a cat without scratching out the eyes of an artist or illustrator. But there is a dearth of good writers. There are lots of passable writers in comics. Not many good writers. So hopefully we’ll be able to help out with that.
Again, check back tonight for the next ” —– of the Imagination” terror-cast.
This month, in the wake of our “What’s Your Favorite Ceratopsian?” poll, we present the world’s premiere t-shirt featuring silhouettes of the major Ceratopsian dinosaurs. I think we can confidently declare that no other t-shirt featuring silhouettes of the major Ceratopsian dinosaurs matches this one in quality and superbness.
Of course, the design doesn’t stop at mere chest adornment! At the Rabbit + Crow Shop you will also find Ceratopsian coasters, stickers, posters, mugs, as well as a selection of underpants with three different horny Ceratopsian designs from which to choose from.
Styracosaurus, that spiky-necked glory of the Jurassic era, has garnered the top spot in our “Name Your Favorite Ceratopsian” poll, with mighty Triceratops a close second.
Triceratops may be a classic. But Styracosaurus is cooler (Joe Tucciarone’s well-known painting of the face-off with the Daspletosaurus – in an otherworldly twilight of aurora and mist – says it all, I think).
Psittacosaurus, stretching forward in a final bipedal spurt, snapped its beak shut on the bronze.
The “Favorite Ceratopsian” sidebar poll is only a few days old but the competition is fierce. The two favorites are – of course – Styracosaurus and Triceratops. Styracosaurus is currently ahead by a horn’s length. But by the end, the competitors could be running frill and frill.