Blu Notes: The Valley of Gwangi ⋅ 2017 ⋅ Warner Archive Collection
There are few films with which I am more familiar than 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi, pioneering effects talent Ray Harryhausen’s ode to late friend and mentor Willis O’Brien’s never-made tale of cowboys and dinosaurs. As a kid I owned this on pre-record and still managed to watch (and tape) it every time it played on television, which seemed like every other weekend or so in the early ’90s. Though aspects of Gwangi have certainly aged in the five decades since it was produced (its “Gypsy” caricatures are a distinct sore spot anymore) it still holds up quite well overall. The rote Western framework still engages courtesy of a game cast (including genre dependables Richard Carlson and Laurence Naismith and the ever underrated James Franciscus) and able scripting (from veteran television scribe William Bast), the score (by Jerome Moross, heavily adapted from his work on the Wyler epic The Big Country) still excites, and Harryhausen’s technical effects remain among the very best of their kind.
Published in March of this year, Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of The Valley of Gwangi has the film looking better than I ever expected it could. I skipped out on their original DVD of Gwangi (and it’s later MoD re-issue), but did snag the HD version available through the Vudu streaming service a few years ago, and was more or less satisfied with it. When announced I assumed Warner would be sourcing that same scan for their Blu-ray edition; I’ve rarely been happier to be proven wrong.
The 2017 blu-ray presents Gwangi in a new scan that improves handily upon the now dated streaming version. Gone are the soft visuals, abundant damage, flicker, and ambivalent color timing. Gwangi now looks brand new for all practical intents and purposes, with only some minor speckling to date it. Saturation is resplendent, lending newfound pop to John Furniss’ rustic costume designs, and timing improves drastically, particularly in the day-for-night exteriors and effects scenes. Blues can push towards teal here and there, most noticeable in skies early on, but are certainly preferable, to my eyes at least, to the overt magenta inflections of the streaming HD, and are too scrumptious on the whole to complain about otherwise.
Contrast likewise improves. Highlights still run hot, courtesy of the brighter-than-bright Spanish shooting locations, but the new scan does a better job of taming them than have past efforts, and balances out the mid-range contrast as well. Seen side-by-side the streaming HD suddenly appears muddled and ill-resolved, even in well-lit exteriors, while the 2017 remaster remains balanced and engaging throughout. The increased clarity, especially at the middle contrast ranges, is bolstered by a staggering uptick in fine detail, a testament to how far film scanning tech has improved in the last decade or so. Gwangi is crisp beyond expectation, leaving the subtleties and textures of Harryhausen’s effects (including at least one career highlight; the still-impressive Gwangi-wrangling sequence) easier to appreciate than ever. A robust AVC encode provides good support for the visuals, with grain textures (even in the grittier effects takes) going blessedly unperturbed by undue manipulation.
Other disc-specs satisfy, even if they fail to impress on the order of the remastered visuals. Warner Archive stick with The Valley of Gwangi‘s original monophonic sound mix which, aside from a bit of distortion here and there inherent to the original recording, sounds just fine in dual channel DTS-HD. An optional set of English subtitles are offered in support, and are much appreciated. Supplements are limited to previously released content (as should be expected of Warner Archive releases by now), and include the Return to the Valley featurette and Gwangi and Vanessa easter egg from the 14-year old DVD (both in SD) as well as Gwangi‘s original theatrical trailer, now offered in a tasty HD scan of its own. Packaging is no frills, but with no complaints; Gwangi comes with an insert featuring original poster artwork and a standard non-eco blu-ray case.
The Valley of Gwangi remains a distinct personal favorite, as I know it is with many, and the 2017 blu-ray edition only enhances its already high replay value. Recommendations are rarely so easy. Gwangi retails for $21.99, though is routinely on sale for less, and is readily available through the WB Shop and Amazon.com.
A note on this review, and Blu Notes articles to come: While in the past I have been enthusiastic about including screenshots for any video reviews, and still find them as useful and instructive as I ever have, at present I can neither take nor provide them. My wife and I moved aboard a boat in the Spring of 2016, and the dedicated review tech I had at the time (a behemoth of a PC which I still miss dearly) was disposed of out of considerations for space. There should be plenty of reputable sources for screenshots for most of the discs to be reviewed on these pages, but for the rest, and in advance, my apologies.