| Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion, which was based on the first book in Walter Farley’s extensive series, is one of the all-time great children’s films, a term that is too often used pejoratively against films that are considered immature, simplistic, or vulgar. The Black Stallion is none of those things; quite to the contrary, it is magnificent, beautiful, and deep without being fashionably complex. It is a storybook movie, a contemporary fairy tale of sorts, and describing it as a “children’s film” refers to the simple, beautiful fact that it is told directly from the point of view of a child and, in that way, will naturally speak to children, but without excluding those adults who still remember what it was like to be a child and how to see the world through a child’s eyes—as difficult an artistic feat as I can imagine.|
The child in question is freckled 11-year-old Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno), who we first meet on an Irish steamer in the ocean north of Africa in 1946. He is there with his father (Hoyt Axton), a large, gregarious man who is most at home telling tall tales and gambling with the ship’s exotic mix of wealthy foreigners. We get the sense that he loves his son but isn’t necessarily a great father, and we never know why he and Alec are on this ship so far from America (in the book Alec is returning from India where he was visiting his uncle). Because his father is often occupied, Alex is left to his own devices, and he roams the ship’s decks, discovering one day the magnificent-horrible sight of a beautiful, powerful black Arabian stallion being corralled by a group of men with ropes and shut into a stall. Alec is terrified and fascinated by the sight, and he returns later to offer the horse some sugar cubes.
But then disaster strikes, and the ship is caught in a storm and catches on fire and sinks. The intense, hectic nature of the ship disaster is a perfect example of how The Black Stallion speaks through the eyes of a child, in this case a frightened young boy trapped in confusion and panic. Everything is fire and smoke and crashing water, screams and pandemonium, exactly as a child would perceive it. Ballard and editor Robert Dalva (Captain America: The First Avenger) cut the scene for maximum intensity, with just the right attention paid to time and space while also conveying complete breakdown. Alec loses his father in the melee, is washed overboard, and watches the ship sink into the ocean (again, the lack of any other people in the water attests to the film’s specific point of view). Also in the water with him is the stallion, whose dangling ropes Alex grabs in desperation.
That morning he awakens on the beach of a rocky, deserted island. The stallion is there, too, and for the next half hour Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Natural) orchestrate a beautiful, moving, almost completely wordless symphony of images and emotions as Alec and the stallion, who he names Black, cope with the fear and loneliness of their isolation—first alone, and then gradually together. The long take on the beach in which they first come into physical contact as Alex offers the stallion a piece of seaweed and they perform a lovely dance of timidity and curiosity, each on the opposite side of the frame, moving closer, backing up, moving closer until finally connecting, is one of the greatest moments of pure cinema ever recorded. So, too, is the sequence in which Black allows Alec to climb onto his back (which we see entirely underwater as they walk together in the shallows of the surf) and they race across the pristine beach, a moment of breathless exuberance and complete submission to the power of the moment.
The film’s second half takes place back in America after Alec and Black are rescued from the island and he returns home to live with his mother (Teri Garr), who, like his father, is kind and loving, but also a bit disconnected from Alec and his experiences. Alec finds connection with a surrogate father figure, Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), a former jockey and racehorse trainer who finds Black after he breaks free from Alex’s tiny backyard. Henry is a grizzled but lovable loner in the familiar Mickey Rooney mold (he was nominated for an Oscar, perhaps a recognition of just how perfectly actor and role were matched here), and he begins training Alec how to ride Black, whose strength and speed he recognizes, although he doubts he will be able to race him because he lacks documentation.
But, race them they do, and the film’s final act is a conventional, but no less thrilling, sports drama, with Alec the child rider racing his black stallion against two of the finest thoroughbreds in the world. Ballard stages the race for maximum intensity, and part of what makes it so magnificent is the attention to detail, especially in the sound, which was recorded by actually attaching microphones to the underside of the horses so we hear the thundering of their hooves, the sprays of dirt, and the heavy beat of their breathing. The sequence is, like so much of the film, a child’s fantasy-come-true, and because Ballard keeps the focus on Alec and the tone consistent with his experience (notice how weirdly large and empty the world seems when he returns to America), it works despite the narrative conventions and clichés.
The Black Stallion was shepherded into production by Francis Ford Coppola when he was at the height of his post-Godfather Hollywood power (otherwise it never would have been made), and its primary artistic collaborators were all relative newbies. Kelly Reno was an amateur actor who had never worked in front of a camera before (although he had been riding horses since he could walk). Ballard had never directed a feature film before; his previous work was in industrial and educational films and self-financed animal documentaries. Of the three credited screenwriters, which include Melissa Mathison, who would go on to write Spielberg’s E.T. (1982), Jeanne Rosenberg, and William D. Wittliff, only Wittiliff had had a screenplay produced, 1978’s made-for-TV movie Thaddeus Rose and Eddie starring Johnny Cash. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel had shot only one other feature film, More American Graffiti (1979), although he had worked on several short documentaries and Lanton Mills, Terrence Malick’s infamous student film made at the American Film Institute in the early ’70s. And editor Robert Dalva had cut only two feature films before, the most recent being the 1978 made-for-TV movie adaptation of Judy Blume’s controversial teen novel Forever. Even composer Carmine Coppola, Francis’s father, had only a handful of previous credits under his belt. And the result of their combined inexperience was magic, creating in The Black Stallion a masterpiece, a child’s film that remains powerfully ageless in its evocation of heart and triumph and celebration of beauty.
Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (4)
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