Sunday, December 2, 2018

The First Feathered Dinosaur in Art reconsidered

One of the first dinosaur books that I ever received as a child was called Dinosaurs; Books for Young Explorers, 1972 (National Geographic Society) by Kathryn Jackson. Little did I know at the time, that this children’s book would play such an influential role in my life, creating a lifelong interest in the prehistoric animals. Forty-seven years later, thanks to an online article on vintage dinosaur art, I was able to re-acquire the hardcover, and at the same time, recapture my childhood memories. 

Dinosaurs; Books for Young Explorers, 1972 by Kathryn Jackson
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Why did this book have such a profound effect on me? Was it the writing? The layout? Colorful images?

What set this book apart from the other dinosaur books at the time was the true-to-life artwork, in particular, the Tyrannosaurus Rex-Triceratops bloody clash (also featured on cover art) in an open savannah landscape.

Artist Jay H. Matternes captures the moment beautifully, combining detailed paleoart with accurate landscape interpretations.

This had me yearning to rediscover other long forgotten artforms; the type I prefer which mixes both prehistoric realism and moving scenery.

I found just that in the 1969 movie, The Valley of Gwangi. 

The Valley of Gwangi 1969 Movie
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
The Valley of Gwangi is a 1969 American western fantasy film directed by Jim O'Connolly and written by William Bast.

The plot is best summarized here at the website “TV Tropes”.

Cowboys versus dinosaurs!

The Valley of Gwangi is a 1969 American film about cowboys fighting an Allosaur (not a Tyrannosaur, though it is often mistaken for one). The film is known for its Stop Motion Animation creature effects provided by Ray Harryhausen.

The idea had already been done years earlier in the movie The Beast of Hollow Mountain but "Gwangi" is the better known of the two. 'Gwangi' was originally conceived by Willis O'Brien, the man who did the special effects for King Kong (1933).

Sometime near the turn of the century, a cowgirl named T.J. hosts a traveling rodeo show, currently parked near a desert town. Her former fiancé, cowboy "Tuck" Kirby, wants to buy her out, but T.J. has hopes that her latest discovery -a tiny horse- will boost attendance to the show. A British paleontologist named Bromley declares the creature to be an Eohippus, a prehistoric horse.

The horse came from an area known as "The Forbidden Valley". A gypsy woman claims that it should be returned or they will all suffer the wrath of a being she calls "Gwangi". Later Bromley helps a group of gypsies steal the horse, (he hopes to follow it to its home). Tuck, T. J. and several of their cowboy helpers set out to recover it, and follow them into the valley.

It turns out the valley is a Lost World that has a variety of prehistoric creatures including a Pteranodon that attacks them, but the cowboys kill it. They are then attacked by the titular Allosaur. Gwangi battles a styracosaur and wins. The cowboys try to capture the monster by lassoing it around the neck and pulling it down with several horses. However, they only succeed when Gwangi knocks itself out while pursuing them.

The cowboys take it back to the town where it is to be put on display in T.J.'s show. However, on the opening night one of the Gypsies sneaks in and begins to unlock Gwangi's cage in an effort to free it. He gets killed for his troubles, and Gwangi escapes, killing Bromley and a circus elephant in the process.

Eventually Gwangi, Tuck, T.J and a Mexican boy named Lope end up in a cathedral which catches on fire. They (the humans, that is) manage to escape and lock the door behind them, trapping Gwangi in the burning building which then crumbles around it. The movie ends as everyone watches Gwangi die (end of TV Tropes summary).

Yes, the story is a bit silly, but you have to respect the writer William Bast for “Gwangi’s” original narrative! I still love watching this movie!

The Valley of Gwangi is a cinematic work of art, well ahead of its day in realistic dinosaurian depiction.

We can thank Raymond Harryhausen (June 29, 1920 – May 7, 2013) for creating these visual effects, the form of stop-motion model animation known as "Dynamation".

The 1969 release of the movie also included an accompanying comic book published by the Dell Company. With its movie poster cover, and illustrations by Jack Sparling, the comic is a must-have for any dinosaur enthusiast. 

The Valley of Gwangi Comic Book; 1969
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
I took a few minutes the other day to go over and read The Valley of Gwangi, reliving the story this time through print. Sparling does a nice job of summarizing the entire movie into comic book form.

In a well-known scene from the movie, a group of cowboys on horseback chase after a small theropod called Ornithomimus, hoping to lasso and capture it for their western show. 

The Valley of Gwangi Ornithomimus from 1969 movie
The action scene is beautifully recreated in the comic, with the exception of one important detail, the Ornithomimus doesn’t look like the movie’s own Ornithomimus.

A close examination of the supposed Ornithomimus reveals what appears to be a tuft of feathers on the animal’s head. How could that be? In 1969? I thought to myself; this must be an innocent mistake, a slip of the artists brush.

The Valley of Gwangi 1969 comic Ornithomimus depiction
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
The Valley of Gwangi 1969 comic Ornithomimus depiction
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Remember, Ornithomimus, like many dinosaurs, was long thought to have been scaly. However, beginning in 1995, several specimens of Ornithomimus have been found preserving evidence of feathers (source; Wikipedia).

Yet, on the next page we see the same Ornithomimus, again with a feather tuft and now teeth (Ornithomimus was toothless), meeting its sudden demise at the hands of an angry Gwangi.

The Valley of Gwangi 1969 comic Ornithomimus depiction
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
The Valley of Gwangi 1969 comic Ornithomimus depiction
Photo Credit: Paul Cianfaglione
Did Jack Sparling accidentally replace the movie Ornithomimus with another theropod dinosaur? Or was this mistake intentional?

Could Sparling be the first person (intentional or not) to ever illustrate a non-avialan dinosaur with feathers? It’s a strong possibility.

To confirm this, we need to visit Matthew Martyniuk’s excellent blog, and his article; “The First Feathered Dinosaurs (In Art)”, May, 2016.

It is here where Martyniuk offers a number of earlier images of feathered dinosaurs, including an eerily similar 1975 restoration of “Syntarsus” by Sarah B. Landry. Was the 1969 Gwangi comic Ornithomimus the inspiration behind Landry’s Syntarsus artwork??

Syntarsus by Sarah B. Landry, 1975
Image Credit: dinogoss blogspot
Martyniuk writes about Landry artwork here;

[In 1975, a famous feathered dinosaur illustration of a well-known species was provided by Sarah B. Landry, drawn under the direction of Bob Bakker for his seminal article in Scientific American, "The Dinosaur Renaissance." Landry and Bakker depicted the small theropod "Syntarsus" (=Coelophysis) covered in overlapping feather-like scales or scale-like feathers, similar to Heilmann's "proavis", and a long tuft of feathers on the head. The choice of species was not a coincidence. Michael Raath, who had described Syntarsus in 1969 (the same year as Deinonychus), was quick to tout how bird-like it was in popular books and articles, and he suggested several times that it may have been feathered.

To understand the impact of this "first" feathered dinosaur, just look at the rest of the 1970s and early 1980s. It was Syntarsus, not Deinonychus, which was consistently drawn with feathers from then on. Many of these later reconstructions even directly copied Bakker and Landry's style of feather crest (or slightly modified it), making "Syntarsus with feather crest" a bona fide paleoart meme.]

One of Martyniuk’s favorite derivatives of Landry's Syntarsus illustration is one made in 1976 by William Stout and reproduced in Don Glut's 1982 edition of The New Dinosaur Dictionary.

Syntarsus by William Stout, 1976
Image Credit: dinogoss blogspot
Is it just a strange coincidence that Jack Sparling would mistakenly show a small tufted theropod with teeth in the Gwangi comic the same year Syntarsus was described to the world?

Or, did Sparling pick up on Michael Raath’s description of Syntarsus in 1969, creating a controversial, cutting-edge depiction?

After seeing Landry and Stouts Syntarsus artwork, I find it unbelievable that no one has ever acknowledged Sparling’s mysterious “tufted and toothed” theropod six-years earlier.

One thing is absolutely clear here, the 1969 Gwangi comic did not illustrate the movie version of Ornithomimus.

No comments :

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.