Saturday, August 24, 2013

Black Beauty (1971)

          Seeing as how the classic Anna Sewell novel Black Beauty (1877) is told from the perspective of a horse as it changes hands through various owners during its tumultuous lifetime, any film adaptation of the material faces some built-in problems. This 1971 version of the tale, for instance, portrays valiant steed Black Beauty as a sort of metaphor for goodness and innocence, using the behavior of people toward the animal to communicate Sewell’s themes. And while the absence of hokey anthropomorphization is to be applauded, the lack of a real personality for the leading character is a difficult problem for any film to surmount. Accordingly, the 1971 Black Beauty is a respectable endeavor thanks to crisp cinematography and impressive production values, but the picture doesn’t generate much emotional heat. Still, only the most hard-hearted viewer could fail to be touched in some small way by the travails of a noble animal that occasionally falls into the hands of horrific people.
          Set in Victorian England, the picture begins when Black Beauty is born on a rural farm. Witnessing the event is angelic child Joe (Mark Lester), the son of a poor tenant farmer who promises the newborn stallion to Joe as a pet. Joe raises the animal with great care and affection. Yet by the time Black Beauty is a young adult, the farm’s kindly owner has died and bequeathed his estate to a rotten son named Sam (Patrick Mower). Sam seizes the animal, beginning a long series of ownership transfers, some of which are to kind owners and some of which are to abusive ones. Eventually, Beauty becomes the property of characters including a circus owner (Walter Slezak), a principled soldier (Peter Lee Lawrence), and others. Some sequences are brisk and purposeful, like the nasty interlude during which Sam owns and mistreats Black Beauty, whereas others meander, particularly the long circus episode. The transitions between vignettes are not particularly graceful, because on some occasions Black Beauty simply stands in an empty field after being abandoned by one owner until someone else comes along to claim the horse and continue the story.
          Furthermore, it’s awkward that Black Beauty’s most important owner, young Joe, is portrayed via billing and posters as a main character when in fact he’s out of the movie rather quickly. (On the plus side, Lester—the star of the 1968 smash Oliver!—is a vapid performer who contributes very little to the movie’s appeal, so his absence is appreciated.) Aside from the inherent decency of the story and the undeniable grandeur of beautiful horses, the only exemplary element of Black Beauty is the cinematography by Chris Menges. His images are clean and spare, reflecting a singularity of aesthetic vision the film does not possess on any other level. FYI, director James Hill made a number of animal-themed pictures throughout his career, including the charming hit Born Free (1966) and such follow-ups as An Elephant Called Slowly (1970).

Black Beauty: FUNKY

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