THE BLACK STALLION (1979)
Movie magic. A term I believe in but feel has been thrown around too much. Movies have the power to transport us to other worlds, both literally and figuratively; the very concept of which can be described as magical. I am, for lack of a better word, a sucker when it comes to movies. I refuse to raise any cynical guards or preconceived notions when I embark on a cinematic voyage, pretentious as that may sound. That said, I do know the difference between “magical” and what is “manufactured magic.” Most films that purport to weave a spell often try to evoke a sense of childlike wonder but fail because of the sometimes crushing and bleak nature of reality most adults have experienced. For a child, the existence of magic can be their first step towards discovering something beyond their front door. Why do you think magicians are often shown, both in real life and in the movies, performing at children's birthday parties? Making the fantastic real can have a profound effect on young minds. Therefore, with a movie, it’s even more difficult and therefore astonishing when a film does indeed move beyond mere entertainment and into the realm of transcendence. Let’s not forget, movies are a collaborative, mechanized product. Someone has to dream it up and write it down. Someone has to pay for it. Someone has to film it. Someone has to act it. Someone has to physically put it together. Someone has to put it out there for people to see. After all of those collaborators have had their way with it, how can a movie possibly be able to avoid homogenization?
Fortunately for audiences in 1979, The Black Stallion rose above those impediments. Up until this point, Carroll Ballard was a respected, Oscar-nominated documentarian and UCLA graduate, whose acquaintance with a much more famous alumnus would eventually lead him to helm his first narrative feature. Francis Ford Coppola hated working for the studios. Sure, he achieved his greatest financial and artistic successes while working in the looser yet still studio-based system of the 1970’s, but he hated having to report to anyone. American Zoetrope would fulfill his dream of autonomy, but it would cost him dearly. Indeed, he must have had a moment of déjà vu when United Artists, surprising considering the taste and quality of their output, shelved The Black Stallion for two years, proclaiming that an art film for children was not commercially viable. A similar situation took place a few years prior, although the film was not shelved for nearly as long (six months), when American Graffiti (1973) had a spectacular preview but Ned Tanen, Universal Studio head, claimed the film was unreleasable. Coppola, the film’s producer, was apoplectic, accusing Tanen of literal insanity and offering to buy the film and release it himself. Thanks to his massive power from the success of The Godfather (1972), this was a legitimate possibility. Years later, when he fortunately still had clout to get films made despite his own runaway production of Apocalypse Now (1979), he essentially forced them to release The Black Stallion, which would turn a healthy profit, spawn a sequel, prequel, and a television series.
The story, from the novel by Walter Farley and elegant in its simplicity, revolves around Alec (Kelly Reno, showing a naturalism rare in a child performer) as he travels by ship along the coast of North Africa with his father, played by Hoyt Axton. A wild Arabian stallion is forced into cramped quarters by its cruel masters. Alex, intrigued, brings it sugar cubes, which look delicious, by the way, but is quickly caught and run off. Axton, like Alec’s mother, is never named, is busy playing cards with a fabulously mixed bag of colorful individuals, whose bets become increasingly ridiculous. An older man, with a slight tremor in his hand, produces a small bronzed statue of Bucephalos, whose story Axton relates to Alec as they divvy up the booty he’s won in the poker game. Hoyt Axton has a singular screen presence. That low, somewhat-gravelly voice has a soothing quality and his monologue about the legend of Bucephalus the horse strikes just the right chord of humor and excitement. With so little interaction between father and son, the dialogue is very smart and character-driven when Alec scoffs at his father’s description of smoke coming out of Bucephalos’ nostrils. It explains so much with barely any lines at all.
Later that night, for reasons left unexplained, a massive fire breaks out and the ship begins to sink. Axton tries to help the crew and Alec falls overboard after having his life jacket stolen by the Arabian horse’s horrible owner. The stallion topples overboard as well, fire and water surrounding the two. A near real-life accident occurs on-camera as the horse, struggling to swim, actually flips over but is able to right itself. Grabbing its reins, Alec is pulled along by the horse, who doesn’t seem to notice. It’s unfortunate that this marks the last appearance of Axton’s character. Not being very familiar with the novel, I wasn’t certain whether he survives the shipwreck. Axton is so engaging that it’s genuinely sad when you realize that he was lost at sea.
Washing up on a deserted shore, so begins the most incredible section of the film. There’s an argument that the film is a tad overlong, which I understand but disagree with. No one, I repeat, no one, can claim that the next 28 minutes of screen time is anything less than movie magic personified. No dialogue. One human. One horse. You can probably guess what happens next, but the way the relationship between horse and boy develops is actually much more apprehensive and filled with mutual suspicion than you would think. Alec, equipped only with the knife his father gave him and the Bucephalos statue, frees the stallion from it’s knotted restraints. Oddly enough, a similar scene is depicted in The Rescuers Down Under (1990), but that time with a giant eagle and a boy. The most famous and jaw-dropping scene involves a real cobra nearly killing Alec. I don’t like to know anything prior to viewing a film, so I understood that the only way they could film that scene with the boy and the cobra would be to use a genuine cobra. It is literally a couple of feet away from his face. In the trivia, it’s revealed that there was glass between the two, thank goodness. It is one of the most tense scenes I’ve ever witnessed, and I’ve seen Sorcerer (1977).
The horse tramples the snake and runs off again, leaving the indication that the stallion may be developing a trust for the boy. Later, it succumbs to hunger and accepts the boy’s friendship. They bond, they ride, they learn to love each other. A group of fishermen arrive and for a brief moment, there’s a real fear that the stallion will be left behind, but they are fortunately able to get it onboard.
Alec, with his new friend in tow, returns to his mother in Flushing, New York. Similar to Lisa with her pony or Bart with his elephant on The Simpsons, Alec tries to keep his gigantic black horse in his backyard, leading to some exciting and pretty funny scenes of it running amok and causing some pretty major mishaps around town. Alec’s mother, played by the great Teri Garr, is admirably patient with her son’s new friend and her behavior is refreshing as another movie might have made the mother out to be a bit of a villain, demanding the horse be sold or sent away. Teri Garr, who continued to perform despite a multiple sclerosis diagnosis in the early 80’s but seems to have been permanently sidelined by a brain aneurysm in 2006, deserves a great deal of respect as a brilliant actress of various talents. Not just a pretty face, I wish she were better known by today’s audiences, and if she were in better health, would likely have been in many more recent films, probably a lot of comedies, playing mothers or maybe a kooky neighbor. She’s got a maternal quality, but there’s so much more. A dancer who broke out of the chorus line, she worked with an incredible array of filmmakers, including Coppola (The Conversation, One From The Heart), Mel Brooks (one of her most famous roles, Young Frankenstein), Martin Scorsese (After Hours), Steven Spielberg (Close Encounters of the Third Kind), John Schlesinger (Honky Tonk Freeway), Sydney Pollack (Tootsie, Oscar nomination), Robert Altman (The Player, Ready to Wear), as well as wonderful work in Mr. Mom and even an episode of Faerie Tale Theatre. If I had to explain who she is to someone younger, it would either be Young Frankenstein or maybe even Dumb and Dumber that I would mention.
The stallion disappears, with Alec searching everywhere until finally discovering that he’s ended up in the barn of cantankerous ex-jockey and ex-racehorse trainer Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney, in an Oscar-nominated turn). I’ve never gotten into the Andy Hardy movies and I was brought up during the years where the only Mickey Rooney work I was exposed to was Dana Carvey playing a pathetic version of him on Saturday Night Live’s Theatre Stories, an admittedly very funny sketch featuring Carvey, Mike Myers, Julia Sweeney, and Steve Martin. The first time I truly came to understand just how strong a performer he could be was is in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). It’s an understated, deeply felt performance of incredible restraint. The stories about Rooney’s behavior on and off-camera are legend and he certainly was capable of being a big ham, as in Pete’s Dragon (1977), a childhood favorite of mine that I will continue to defend despite its flaws. The exchanges between Henry and Alec are great, with Rooney refusing to soften his attitude even while speaking to a child. Reno is particularly good, refusing to back down or be intimidated by Rooney. Eventually, Alec agrees to let The Black, as he’s come to be known, stay in Henry’s barn.
Mickey Rooney’s character introduces a redemptive arc into the picture. He used to be big but now he’s not. Standard stuff, but Rooney has the ability to be likable without dipping into gooey sentimentality. After Alec wonders aloud about The Black’s speed, Henry discovers that not only is the horse fast, he could be the fastest in the world. In a strange, rain-drenched night scene, the press is invited to watch The Black run a timed lap. Cars arrive without the passengers exiting. There’s a dreamlike quality to this scene, accentuated by the rain, headlights, and lack of dialogue. Clocking in at a record pace, The Black immediately makes headlines, leading him to compete in a race against the two national champion horses. Although injured in a fight and urged to give up by Alec, who acts as his jockey, The Black emerges victorious in a rousing and crowd-pleasing finale.
Carroll Ballard would continue exploring the relationships between man, nature, and beast with films like Never Cry Wolf (1983), Fly Away Home (1996), and Duma (2005). Working with great technicians like Alan Splet, David Lynch’s sound designer of choice and the recipient of a special Oscar for the innovative techniques he applied here, Ballard could tell a quietly powerful story without pandering to the audience with easy narrative choices. The screenplay was written by a fascinating cross-section of writers who would each go on to write stories dealing with the elements as well as unlikely bonds between humans and nature. William D. Witliff (The Perfect Storm, Legends of the Fall), Jeanne Rosenberg (White Fang, The Journey of Natty Gunn, Running Free (an unfortunate Black Stallion-type rip off), and probably most famously Melissa Mathison (E.T.). Their dialogue is spare but deeply meaningful.
I’ve reserved my final praise for what is the most famous aspect of The Black Stallion. Its cinematography. It’s rare for a cinematographer to make such an impact right out of the gate. Even fellow DPs like Vilmos Szigmond started out by working on dubious projects like Ray Dennis Steckler’s magnum opus The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!? (1963) and The Sadist (also 1963 and a very underrated, well-made film) before moving on to bigger and better things. Six-time Oscar nominee Caleb Deschanel, a number that brings up a Roger Deakins-level snub factor, had only been the DP on four short films and worked on the camera crew for a handful of other films. According to Ballard, he was invaluable and deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the look and overall feel of the film, often filming things Ballard hadn’t even asked for. Although he’d make up for it later, the fact is that he was being touted as a sure thing for an Academy Award, only to miss out not only on the award but a nomination as well. There’s a deep-seated issue with the cinematography Oscar, compounded recently by some recipients making films in mostly grey rooms while CGI elements are added later, bringing into question how much the cinematographer really has to do with the look of a film. Well before CGI, it has been accepted that the expected nominees for Best Cinematography will be films with spectacular vistas and often striking, outdoor visuals. My own personal argument is that anyone can go outside and use natural light to create a unique shot. The real challenge is lighting a scene in a confined space or making the cinematography so realistic that it’s not noticeable at all, even though there could be a hundred lights on the performers. In 1980, the nominees were Apocalypse Now (the eventual winner), 1941, All That Jazz, The Black Hole, and Kramer Vs. Kramer. All of these films have great cinematography for different reasons. You might think that I would suggest Kramer Vs. Kramer as being a nominee that could be discarded for The Black Stallion, but in fact, I would suggest The Black Hole. The fact that The Black Hole is not a particularly good film that still has high production values only serves to highlight the fact that just because a film has a great look doesn’t mean it’s helpful to the film, especially one with as weak a story as The Black Hole. Great cinematography and a poor narrative can’t work together harmoniously. Deschanel would go on to lens films such as Being There (1979), The Right Stuff (1983), The Patriot (2000), and the iconic The Natural (1984). His work on The Black Stallion is practically a miracle, creating a look that refuses to draw attention to itself and envelops the viewer into a whirling dervish of spectacular visuals.
All of the parts make a whole for The Black Stallion. It is a film oft-copied, but never equaled.