Program Notes: The Black Stallion (1979)
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The Black Stallion (1979) is simply one of the best films ever made. Period.
Those who think movies for kids have to be cloying and simplistic should prepare for a rude awakening. This film is so subtle, so drop-dead beautiful, so emotionally satisfying that once seen it cannot be forgotten.
Produced by Francis Ford Coppola (who at the time was on one of the greatest directing runs in American film history with the two Godfather movies, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now), The Black Stallion was the feature film debut of director Carroll Ballard. It was only the second feature shot by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel.
Theirs was a partnership made in heaven. Although The Black Stallion had a script (courtesy of five writers, especially Melissa Mathison, who would go on to write E.T.), it had virtually no dialogue.
This is a film told almost exclusively in pictures. And what magnificent pictures they are!
The film is based on Walter Farley’s hugely popular series of children’s novels, the first of which came out in 1941.
It begins on a ship off the Mediterranean coast of Africa. The time seems to be the late ‘40s. Aboard is young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and his father (Hoyt Axton). Alec is fascinated by a violent Arabian stallion also on board, and when the ship sinks in a storm Alec and the horse find themselves the sole inhabitants of a rocky island.
Here director Ballard does something quite daring. He gives us a wordless 40–minute passage showing how the boy befriends (“tames” is entirely the wrong word) the angry animal. Theirs becomes a near-symbiotic relationship.
The sequence is absolutely magical, perfectly capturing Alec’s joy at becoming one with this magnificent creature. The boy tempts the hungry animal with handfuls of dried seaweed. They play their own version of tag along the beach.
And when, finally, Alec lures “The Black” out into the lagoon and uses the buoyancy of the water to hoist himself onto the horse’s back for a mad ride along the shore ... well, at that point The Black Stallion achieves a level of innocent rapture capable of moving even hardened cynics to tears of happiness.
Eventually Alec and his horse are rescued by fishermen and find themselves back home in the States with Alec’s widowed mother (Teri Garr). Alec makes the acquaintance of a washed-up jockey (Mickey Rooney, who earned an Oscar nomination for his work here), and together they train The Black to run in a much-publicized race.
The second half of The Black Stallion is by far the more conventional, yet even here there are abundant pleasures. Rooney is terrific, and Garr has a wonderful moment when in the dead of night she approaches the horse and thanks it for saving her son ... and then wistfully adds that she wishes it had been able to save her husband as well.
The climactic race flirts with cliché (what horse race doesn’t?) but is nevertheless absolutely thrilling.
The film triumphs on so many levels. First of all, it’s a love story between species. The boy and the horse are absolutely in sync. There’s no need for words.
Kelly Reno, only 11 when he shot the film, was the son of Colorado ranchers and knew his way around horses. There are shots here that boggle the imagination, because that is clearly young Kelly Reno doing stunts on horseback that today would be achieved through computer-generated hocus pocus. The kid was fearless.
And he was a terrific performer, with huge eyes set in an angelic freckled face, a face so open, so guileless that you can see everything he’s thinking. (I’ve heard, but cannot confirm, that Reno was a stutterer and that this contributed to Ballard’s decision to limit his dialogue to just a few sentences. Reno made a sequel, The Black Stallion Returns, but his acting career was cut short by a serious car accident. He’s now a truck driver.)
Four horses portrayed The Black, most importantly a champion Arabian stallion from Texas named Cass Ole.
Underpinning the movie is a tremendous musical score by Carmine Coppola, the producer’s father. Employing a hammered dulcimer, Middle-Eastern flutes and exotic percussion, Coppola fashioned a soundtrack every bit as lyrical as the gorgeous visuals.
Ballard has enjoyed a successful directing career. Interestingly, his best films have been about animals: Never Cry Wolf (1983) and another superior family film, Fly Away Home (1996). In the latter Oscar winner Anna Paquin plays a real-life girl who flies an ultralight aircraft to guide her pet Canadian geese to their nesting grounds several states away.
In 2002 The Black Stalliion was chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved as part of the U.S. National Film Registry.
Other films in the series “Kids’ Classics”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- September 1: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Not Rated
- September 8: The Black Stallion (1979) Rated G
- September 15: Mary Poppins (1964) Not Rated
- September 22: A Little Princess (1995) Rated G
- September 29: The Secret Garden (1993) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.