The Black Stallion (1980)

Posted by on Dec 20, 2011 in Buddy Movies | 0 comments


Disclaimer: No violence, no swearing, and no nudity, just a boy and his wild horse.

Viewers and critics will not be able to avoid mentioning National Velvet and The Black Stallion in the same sentence. If you ask me, it’s a warranted but unfair comparison as one could just as easily compare it to Titanic, Cast Away, or Seabiscuit. While National Velvet is the stereotypical girl-and-her-horse movie with a blend of underdog-sports plot, The Black Stallion offers a rich, one-of-a-kind aural and visual spectacle with mere undertones of the cliché horse movie.

The film slowly unfolds as we observe Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno), a young, wide-eyed boy exploring the nooks and crannies of a ship. Alec is there with his father (Hoyt Axton), who is some sort of traveling collector or salesman. During Alec’s exploration, he discovers a feisty Arabian horse as several men sporting turbans fight the horse to cooperate. The sheer size and power of the animal fascinate Alec.

Before too long, the ship begins to sink for some reason and, unlike Titanic, this incredibly tense and well-done sequence lasts a matter of minutes, as opposed to a half hour. When the ship finally sinks, Alec struggles to stay above the surface and is saved by the Arabian horse. When Alec awakes, he and the horse, which he names The Black (played by Cass Ole), are stranded on a desert island. Until Alec is rescued and taken back home, these relationship-building minutes on the island are some of the most beautiful and complex ever projected onto the big screen.

On the island, as with the Stallion2ship-sinking sequence, director Carroll Ballard presents stunning visuals and phenomenal shot composition, which, despite almost no dialogue, are surpassed by the ominous and powerful sound, which earned a special achievement Oscar. Take, for instance, an incredible scene in which a snake is hunting Alec while he sleeps on the beach. Due to the combination of intense sound and careful shot composition, it’s an edge-of-your-seat, hold-your-breath moment expertly executed.

While many cast away films present a sense of urgency and panic, Alec and The Black seem perfectly content on the island and almost at home. It’s not until fishermen take them back to civilization that they seem out of place. And, at that point, the film takes a visual and thematic turn to comment on industrialization as Alec sleeps outside and The Black flees the city, wreaking havoc along the way.

Though they occupy their space in civilization for the second half of the film, we never understand Alec’s relationships at school, home, or society in general, which is a rare yet excellent omission by the filmmakers. Teri Garr’s presence as Alec’s newly widowed mother seems almost unnecessary as she shows up for only a few minutes.

From here, the Walter FarleyStallion3 novel-inspired film is routine. Alec meets Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney in an Oscar-nominated role), a retired horse trainer who’s looking for the big break to get back on his feet. As you can imagine, they train The Black and convince the right people to enter the big race at the end. The only noteworthy moment in the second half of the film is an intense point of anticipation as The Black and Alec wait at the gate before the race. It’s been filmed dozens of times before, but never as nail biting as The Black Stallion, a film with suspense, adventure, and a beautiful horse.

This Francis Ford Coppolla-produced  film swept audiences off their feet in 1980, inspiring a sequel and several rip-offs, but none as purely majestic as this one. In fact, the infamous New Yorker critic Pauline Kael proposed, “It may be the greatest children’s movie ever made.” I won’t go that far, but it is a truly a wonderful film like none I’ve experienced before.

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