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The Black Stallion (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on November 8, 2014

I don’t have a great memory.  That’s one of the reasons I keep a movie blog, because I often forget details about a movie, or what I thought of it, or even ever having seen it.  One memory that has stuck with me for a long long time, however, is seeing The Black Stallion in the theater with my mom and my sister.  One reason is that because of a complicated family situation, I didn’t get to go to the movies a lot with my mom, so it was a special occasion.  But another reason is that the movie sticks with you.  I’m not sure when the last time I saw it was… has to have been at least 12 years though, since there’s no record of it on my blog.  Probably much longer.  And yet, there were scenes and lines and images from this film that have lingered with me all these years.  Alec (Kelly Reno) and his father (Hoyt Axton) sorting through the night’s poker winnings, and the father telling the story of Alexander the Great and Bucephalus (Alec’s incredulous “smoke coming out of his nose!” line stuck with me too).  The bond between boy and horse slowly growing, as they take tentative steps towards each other.  The underwater shot of the horse being hoisted onto the rescue boat.  And so much more.

Carroll Ballard, who would later direct Fly Away Home, has a natural talent for portraying relationships between children and animals.  The horse (played by “Cass Ole”) is a gorgeous creature, but an imposing one.  And yet the friendship between small Alec (a marvelous, annoyance-free child performance by Reno) and The Black is deeply touching, developed with care and graceful simplicity.  Although the rest of the film is also really good, it’s the lengthy island sequence that serves as the movie’s most impressive and memorable section.  With stunning cinematography by Caleb Deschanel and a lovely score by Carmine Coppola (whose father Francis produced the film), it’s almost a disappointment to leave this remote paradise.

But then it isn’t, because the story continues to hold the viewer’s interest once back in civilization.  Ballard maintains a Malickian sense of gentility and wonder no matter what the setting.  Mickey Rooney’s performance is just gruff enough to be endearing without getting cantankerous, and Teri Garr makes a fine impression despite relatively little screen time.  If you just look at the barebones structure, the story of the Big Race follows a formulaic path (as a sidenote, it’s interesting to observe some plot parallels between this and Breaking Away from the same year).  But it rarely feels like a rote underdog (underhorse?) sports story because always the relationship between boy and horse has the primary focus.  Even though it happens at the end, the race isn’t the culmination of the tale, what everything’s been building up to.  It’s one more chapter in the tale of this bond.  And Ballard wisely — brilliantly — cuts away to those island scenes as the race reaches its climax.  A masterful touch.

The one sour note is the way the only “evil” character in the film is an Arab (the role is actually credited simply as “Arab”).  It’s bad enough that he’s mean to the horse, does he have to steal a child’s life vest as well?  It comes off as uncomfortably xenophobic.  But that’s really the only gripe I have.  I showed this to my fiancée — who had previously showed me Fly Away Home — and she said we’ll have to show it to our kids one day.  I couldn’t agree more.  Family films are rarely so beautiful, elegant and moving.  Rating: Great (90)


4 Responses to “The Black Stallion (rewatch)”

  1. David Kelly said

    Excellent write-up on The Black Stallion, which I saw for the first time earlier this year. I watch A LOT of movies as well (over 400 so far in 2014) but I was stunned at the images in this film and how they have stayed with me.

    David Kelly Pasadena, CA

  2. mountanto said

    Great movie. I highly recommend Ballard’s Never Cry Wolf–maybe it doesn’t have quite the emotional heft of this, but as a piece of filmmaking it’s often sublime. Real shame he didn’t make more movies.

  3. […] 27. The Black Stallion (1979, Carroll Ballard) […]

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