The Black Stallion (1979)
★★★★ / ★★★★
If there were more movies released on a yearly basis which dare to be on the level of ambition, imagination, craft, and execution of “The Black Stallion,” I am convinced there would be more intellectually curious children who would grow up to love and respect animals, the environment, and nature. The work, directed by Carroll Ballard and based on the novel by Walter Farley, without question, is cream of the crop, providing one astonishing visual right after another with seeming ease and endless amount of energy. It invites us to look at every frame and appreciate each choice as one would a most engaging book about adventures, life’s mysteries, and longings.
Right from the opening sequence the camera communicates that it understands children. It involves an American boy named Alec (Kelly Reno) observing men speaking a foreign tongue who are forcing a black desert horse into a tiny stable aboard a ship. Notice the placement of the camera: how it is on the level of the child’s eye coupled with how efficient it is in capturing every emotion from the boy’s freckled and expressive face. He is curious, afraid, excited, and entertained by the level of danger unfolding before him. Despite the foreign language, there is no subtitle. It trusts whoever is watching to be able to read the scene simply by listening closely to the emphases and intonations of words of phrases and by observing that the body movements are filled with purpose. It effectively sets the tone for the rest of the picture.
Eventually, the boy and the horse find themselves stranded on a deserted island. Words are rarely used and this is the point when the film is required to hold the most universal appeal—and it does. The images must speak for themselves. Achingly beautiful are sequences involving the two beings having to learn to trust one another. It is done with suspense, humor, and, yes, even horror. I admired the decision to show that the wild horse is incredibly dangerous: one simply should not run up to one with the intention of petting it, expecting it would be friendly.
Sound effects are utilized in such a way to highlight the dangers: the panicked neighing of the animal, its hooves bashing onto various objects and destroying them, the weight of its humongous body being thrown about. Couple these sounds and accompanying images as the boy slowly approaches Black… it is near impossible not to hold one’s breath. There is no special or visual effects. At times the confused horse and the boy are literally only three feet apart. I found it scary, concerning, and, admittedly, highly entertaining. At one point, I found myself throwing instructions at the screen (“No, don’t do it. Just please walk away!”).
Casting Reno is the correct choice because he has grown up with horses; he gives Alec a certain calm that cannot be edited or constructed or bought. It is amazing how the young performer is able to ride the horse as it runs along the shore without a saddle, strap, or stirrup. He must simply hold onto the mane of the horse as his tiny, fragile human frame bounces about. It must be seen to be believed; I had never seen anything like it.
“The Black Stallion” does not tell the entirety of its story on the island. Most refreshing is that the work does not become about trauma or mourning. It remains to possess a high level of drama, but the emotions behind them are optimistic, full of hope and possibilities. Still, there are unexpected moments when characters get a chance to recognize their losses. Again, words need not be utilized; silence is enough. The camera resting on a face as memories come to the foreground accomplishes more than having to explain how one feels or what one thinks about the preceding action. Here is a movie aimed for children that does not condescend—not even once.