Quite possibly the most beautiful-looking family film ever made, The Black Stallion is the jaw-dropping directorial debut of Carroll Ballard, a onetime UCLA classmate of Francis Ford Coppola and a longtime member of the Godfather auteur’s Bay Area filmmaking collective. (Coppola executive-produced this movie.) Ballard, who cut his teeth as a second unit cinematographer for projects including the first Star Wars movie, reveals considerable directorial skill in The Black Stallion, as well as a preternatural gift for creating evocative visuals. In fact, Ballard’s images, captured by the extraordinary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, are so powerful they compensate for the film’s trite narrative.
Adapted from Walter Farley’s beloved 1941 novel, which launched a twenty-book series that was published over the course of four decades, The Black Stallion depicts the adventures of a World War II-era American youth named Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno). Traveling the Middle East via ocean liner with his father (Hoyt Axton), Alec discovers that a gorgeous black stallion is stabled aboard the ship for transportation. He bonds with the horse by feeding it sugar cubes.
When the ship is attacked and sunk, killing passengers including Alec’s father, Alec drifts to shore on a deserted island, the black stallion his only fellow survivor. Alec rescues the horse by freeing it from bonds that have tethered it to the ground, and the horse returns the favor by rescuing Alec from a cobra. The two form a wordless friendship, with Alec riding the magnificent animal across the island’s idyllic beaches. This first half of the movie, which has barely any dialogue, is miraculous. Not only do the film’s trainers move the horse through so many complicated maneuvers that the illusion of an intentional performance is created, but Ballard’s shooting style mimics documentary-style spontaneity. Using natural light for halos and silhouettes, Ballard conveys infectious wonderment at the beauty of the natural world.
Predictably, the movie loses some of its luster in the second half, after Alec and the horse are rescued and returned to the everyday world. Scenes of Alec trying to readjust to normal life with his mother (Teri Garr) are poignant, but Alec’s dynamic with retired jockey Henry (Mickey Rooney) is pat: Henry agrees to stable the black stallion on his farm, recognizes the horse’s incredible racing potential, and trains Alec to become a jockey. Although Reno is consistently appealing and Rooney is uncharacteristically restrained, Ballard fails to make Alec’s quest for racetrack glory as compelling as the island sequence. Nonetheless, the racing scenes have flair, and they probably offer relief to viewers who find earlier scenes too self-consciously artistic. Yet even when the story is at its weakest, the pictorial splendor of this movie never fails to inspire awe.
The Black Stallion: GROOVY