Let’s be clear, this is The Black Stallion NOT Black Beauty. Nothing against that movie but people often confuse the two and I’m talk about The Black Stallion which is far superior.
The Black Stallion
This last Christmas Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was released and everyone I met who saw it nearly burst into tears while describing how wonderful the movie was. I’m not here to comment on the quality of the film (I haven’t seen it) I just felt that perhaps their praise was a bit bloated. It’s a fact that people love movies about horses, horses that race, horses that jump, horses that bring people together, and horses that go to war. The best of the horse movies, let me take that back, one of the best movies of all time is The Black Stallion. Yet when I mention it to most people, few have seen it or can remember having seen it.
I first saw this movie when I was very little, it was with my grandmother on her Betamax player. I watched it many more times on subsequent visits, but when she got rid of the Betamax I didn’t see it for a very very long time. About five years ago I saw I again and was blown away, not just by how well it held up but by how exceptional it was overall. The music, the acting, the cinematography, the direction, the writing, all were top notch and executed to perfection.
The films dialogue is minimalistic throughout but almost nonexistent for the first hour, in which Alec our hero is cast overboard on a sinking cruise liner as it sails near the North African coast. A mysterious and often indignant black Arabian Stallion who is also thrown over board manages to pull Alec to safety and the shores of a nearby deserted island. It is on the island that Alec tames the Black, and in their isolation they become friends. When Alec is rescued by a boat of Portuguese fishermen he refuses to leave without the black.
The second part of the movie takes place in America with endless grassy fields and suburban neighborhoods, a stark contrast to the serene beach with it’s sapphire waters. Like many heros who return from an adventure like Alec’s, he has difficulty accepting life as it is afterwards. We knew little of him before but clearly he has changed. He finds solace in the Black, who after escaping his mothers back yard ends up in the barn of Mickey Rooney. Rooney is a retired horse Jockey and he eventually trains Alec to ride the black like a pro. The climax of the film is a race between two champion horses and Alec on the Black.
I don’t think I give away any surprise ending when I say that he wins, that’s not really what makes the final moments so magical and gratifying. The image of Alec with his arms out like wings on the Black in the race are intercut with images of Alec riding the Black on a sunset beach, free and magnificent.
It should come as no surprise that many filmmakers have studied the film intently, including Spike Jonze who nearly recreated Stallion shots for Where The Wild Things Are. In some ways The Black Stallion is an homage to Maurice Sendak’s classic, the second half of the film serving as what Max/Alec, went through upon his return from the island. The Film was edited like an adult drama and not a children’s film. Director Carroll Ballard puts you right at Alec’s level and let’s you experience through his eyes. He achieves that most effectively during the chaos of the sinking ship as well as during the final horserace, which has unbelievably intimate shots. Kelly Reno who portrays Alec had been riding horses since he could walk and did all his own riding in the film. There was no need to shoot from odd angles to conceal a stunt rides identity.
It’s criminal the Caleb Deschanel didn’t win the Oscar for best cinematography. If you find nothing else amazing about the film you must concede that it is shot spectacularly. In a movie where the dialogue is secondary the images become primary, and indeed they are breathtaking. Deschanel’s compositions are simple and rely on natural beauty rather then the trick shots you see from many of today’s cinematographers who draw your attention to the shot not the subject.
The tragedy here, is that while The Black Stallion has been selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being “Culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It has never been released on Blu-ray, and has just one DVD release without a special edition or features. In the end that might be part of what makes the movie so special, without anything to distract you the film can be enjoyed simply, for exactly what it is. A masterpiece.
If you were one of those many who gushed about War Horse, are a horse lover, or are just a lover of film, I can’t urge you strongly enough to see this film. Obviously many have thought it exceptional, it just deserves so much more praise.