Tag: carroll ballard

The Black Stallion

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.

Never Cry Wolf

Never Cry Wolf (1983)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The population of the caribou in the Arctic, once in the millions, has experienced a steep decrease over time so the government needs a scientific justification to exterminate the element that is responsible. It is believed that the wolves, Canis lupus, are to blame. Tyler (Charles Martin Smith), a biologist, is chosen to travel to the Arctic, track the pack, and make careful observations of their behavior.

“Never Cry Wolf,” based on Farley Mowat’s autobiography, is a rousing adventure in the most unexpected ways because, for the most part, the protagonist is by himself. Because human interaction is minimized, the screenplay by Curtis Handson, Sam Hamm, and Richard Kletter, is forced to find the wonder in nature through eye-opening images, alien sounds, and the human experience of a scientist trying to survive in a milieu that is way out of his comfort zone.

The film is almost shot like a documentary. By minimizing the use of score, we get a sense that all of what is happening is real, from Tyler getting ready to board a rickety plane to him watching how wolves interact with their environment and each other. The way in which the camera zooms in on what is ought to be seen commands attention, very direct, but never distracting. There is very little distraction from the experience.

Because conversation is rare, Tyler’s narration is helpful and necessary. While we get a sense of how his scientific mind works and a taste of some of his philosophy, I especially enjoyed that the script allows him to go on a tangent at times. For instance, I liked hearing about the extra cases of beer he ordered while slightly out of it the night before, how he felt about being chosen to lead Project Lupine, and his thoughts of reluctance prior to getting on the plane and being dropped off three hundred miles into the wilderness. The extra information enhances what he goes through because we get a chance to know him as a person rather than just a robotic scientist with a mission from the government.

The land is like another character. The snowy mountains, largely untouched by man, evokes an air of majesty. The pride of the mountains in contrast with Tyler’s humility as a person about to become a part of it has poetry and lyricism. The environment is a constant challenge. In one scene, we can see for miles. In the next scene, everything is enveloped by fog, so white that I wondered for a second if the actor was standing on a white screen. But then you look a little closer and see the white creeping along. It is so surreal, almost like looking into a dream.

It dares to straddle the lines between amusement and fear, suspense and disgust, curiosity and thrill. A question: what is for dinner when you run out of food out there in the tundra? The answer made me cover my eyes, squirm in my seat, and squeal out of revulsion. I yelled out, “You’re not going to eat that! No!” Unless I am watching a horror film, it is rare that I feel the pressure to voice something out and direct it to the screen. But this is not an isolated, gross-out scene. It actually becomes relevant to the plot.

I can sit here and easily give plenty more praise on the technical elements of “Never Cry Wolf,” wonderfully directed by Carroll Ballard. It truly is that rich. But I will not because its magic should be experienced rather than be read about. Instead, I will say this:

I think it is exactly the movie that I needed to see because soon I will be going on my own foray into research. It moved me because it touches upon fear, the fear of the unknown. Like the protagonist, I will have to move to a new place, acclimatize to the climate and culture, and perhaps learn through trial-and-error first before hitting my stride. Though the film is not afraid to peek at dark corners, its message is largely hopeful: the pursuit of contributing to science can lead to personal growth and rewards that many will never get a chance to dream about let alone possess. It made me feel like I am ready.