- Movie Rating -

The Black Stallion (1979)

| October 17, 1979

I didn’t want to see this movie.  I had no desire to see a movie about a boy and his horse – the subject just doesn’t interest me.  Yet, now having seen it, I know that if I had gone with my initial dismissal, I might have missed one of the greatest family movies ever made.

The Black Stallion is glorious, a film seemingly made without all of the familiar roadblocks of family movies.  It was directed by Carroll Ballard, a former UCLA classmate of Francis Ford Coppola (who served as executive producer here, and whose father Carmine did the music) who worked as second unit cinematographer on Star Wars, the film is not really interested in keep the kids awake, so much as giving them an experience.  Like the great old Disney films, it’s not about what they get, it’s about what they take with them.  Ballard really brings alive the imagery that Walter Farley painted so beautifully in his book.

This is a boy and his horse movie but it’s so much more than that.  It takes place just around the time of World War II and opens with Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) travelling through the Middle East with his father (Hoyt Axton).  On board a steam ship, we see a lot of the scenes through young Alec’s eyes.  We don’t know why his father is travelling the Middle East and we’re never sure why he’s on this ship.  This not a luxury liner, this is a rusty, gut-bucket tub filled with sinister passengers, many of whom are decked in caftans and face coverings and many who close ranks when Alec comes too close to a seemingly unmanageable black Arabian stallion that is tied up in the cargo hold.  Over a short period of time, the two bond over sugar cubes.

Then the ship capsizes and all aboard are killed save for Alec and the stallion who drift to the nearby shore of a deserted island.  The bond between the two is sealed when the horse rescues Alec from a cobra after Alec has released the horse from its tethered ropes.  What follows is a magnificent series of scenes in which boy and horse bond in the natural world, free of civilization, free of even words.  He learns to ride bareback and the two run back and forth over the shores of the deserted island, and this is where it really helped to have an experience DP at the helm.  The visuals are lush, idyllic and beautiful.

But more than that, Ballard and cinematographer Caleb Deschanel are smart about how they use their camera to tell a story.  Take, for example, an early scene on the beach in which the boy spears a fish.  He invites the horse to eat from his hand, but the moment isn’t edited to exhaustion.  They hold on a shot with the kid on one side and the animal on the other.  It’s very good, restrained filmmaking.  That shot is just as important to the narrative as the kid and the horse riding along the shoreline.  We have to clearly understand the space that they are in both on the beach and inside of themselves.

What happens after they are rescued has been chided by critics as a letdown of routine family film requirements.  But I disagree.  I think it is the logical progression of the story.  Alec and Black are rescued and the boy is reunited with his mother at a ranch in Toronto.  Alec doesn’t want to end his relationship with Black to end and he suggests to the retired old trainer Henry (Mickey Rooney) that the Black could be trained, though Henry politely rejects the idea because, for one, he has no papers and, two, because he’s a desert horse and wouldn’t be suited for racing.

I reject claims that the back half of the movie has weaker legs.  I enjoyed Alec’s determination to stay with the Black.  I liked his Rappaport with Henry and with his mother.  I liked the tenacity that he has in caring for this animal.  They’ve been through a difficult tragedy, and have come out the other side as the best of friends so we understand the kid’s determination.  This is one of the best family films that I have ever seen.  It’s personal, it’s beautiful, it’s intelligent, it’s absorbing.  It’s one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized