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The Black Stallion Film Review

Walter Farley was nervous about his 1941 classic children’s novel “The Black Stallion” being adapted for the screen. Farley, however, hit the jackpot with the team assembled to make this film. It was the first feature for director Carroll Ballard, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, the first screenwriting credit for newbies Melissa Mathison (“E.T.”) and Jeanne Rosenberg, and the first screen appearance by Kelly Reno. Executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola (who attended film school with Ballard) and his American Zoetrope company, the filmmakers were allowed complete creative freedom to make the movie they wanted.

The boardroom execs were flummoxed by what they saw, derisively referring to “The Black Stallion” as an art film for kids. Ballard and his crew were vindicated, however, when the film was released to universal praise and earned a hefty profit. In 2015, Ballard and Deschanel supervised a new 4K digital transfer of “The Black Stallion” released by the Criterion Collection on DVD and Blu-ray. “The Black Stallion” is remarkable for its visual storytelling that elevates Farley’s tale of a boy and his horse to ethereal and mythic heights.

The film begins with Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and his father (Hoyt Axton) traveling on a ship off the coast of North Africa. Their fellow passenger is an untamed Arabian stallion that fascinates Alec. When the ship runs into a storm and capsizes, Alec’s father is lost but the boy and the horse save each other and wash up on a deserted island.

What follows is a remarkable twenty-minute sequence without dialogue. Through a series of beautifully composed shots, Alec is shown exploring his environment and learning to survive. The Black remains aloof until Alec’s life is again threatened, this time by a cobra that the Black stomps to death. The two creatures learn to trust each other. There is a transcendent underwater ballet performed as Alec and the Black swim in a sheltered cove. The camera captures their movements from below and gradually Alec’s legs join with the Black as he rides for the first time. The exhilarating moment is accompanied by Carmine Coppola’s sublime score, inspired by the rhythms of North Africa.

The second half of the film takes place in the US, where Alec is reunited with his mother (Teri Garr). Through providential coincidence, the Black ends up at a farm with retired trainer Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney in an Oscar-nominated role). Dailey becomes a substitute father for Alec and helps him train the Black. They enter him in a match race with two leading thoroughbreds, and the race is the film’s thrilling conclusion.

There are few animals as cinematic as the horse and the principal animal used in “The Black Stallion”, named Cass-Ole, is spectacular. Kelly Reno, who was raised on a ranch, rides Cass-Ole and their authentic relationship is at the heart of the film. A stunt double was used for the race sequence, but Robert Dalva’s seamless editing masks the fact beautifully. The filmmaker’s decision to use minimal dialogue and focus on pure cinema makes this film a classic and “The Black Stallion” feels as fresh today as it did when it was originally released.

“The Black Stallion” is available on DVD and Amazon Video. It will also be screened on Turner Classic Movies in January and February, 2018. I watched the film at my own expense. Review posted on 12/23/2017.

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