by Miguel E. Rodriguez
Director: Carroll Ballard
Cast: Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr, Clarence Muse, Hoyt Axton
My Rating: 8/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 90% Fresh
Everybody’s a Critic Category: “Watch a Film Starring Animals”
PLOT: After being shipwrecked off the coast of Africa in the 1940s, a boy bonds with a magnificent Arabian stallion and trains him to race after their rescue.
Horses are great, but they are not my favorite animals. That honor goes to the great white shark. (They fear nothing; the only things they are even cautious around are larger great whites…but I digress.) I always hear and read about how magnificent and majestic and spiritual horses are. I have never denied their intelligence, but I never jumped on the bandwagon with folks who believe they are angels on four legs. And I’ve never really gotten into horse racing, at least not on an ongoing basis.
But there is one movie that combines the mystique of horses and horse racing with poetry, grace, and true art. Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion is one of the most beautiful films ever made. The visuals are so good and well-edited that fully 28 minutes of the movie are presented with zero lines of dialogue spoken. After a fearsome shipwreck, Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno) finds himself stranded on a desert island along with a magnificent unnamed black stallion whom he later simply calls the Black. During this shipwrecked portion of the movie, all dialogue is dropped, and we simply watch as Alec and the Black overcome their initial fear of each other and bond.
It is in these scenes that The Black Stallion truly shines. There is one particular sequence that will stick in my memory forever. After some days and weeks alone, Alec tries to get the Black to eat food directly out of his hand. In a nearly unbroken take, we watch as the Black warily approaches Alec, then turns away, snorting and stomping, then turns back, taking one cautious step after another, getting closer and closer…and it all looks completely organic. It’s one of the greatest acting performances by any animal in any film I’ve ever seen. In that scene, the Black exhibits more proficiency at acting on camera than I’ve seen in a few human actors I could name.
When I first saw this movie at 8 years old, I couldn’t fully appreciate the ingenuity of this portion of the film. All I cared about was how invested I was in seeing Alec bond with the Black. I didn’t care about cinematic theory and editorial processes and visionary cinematography. But it’s all there in full view, presenting a visual story clearly and cleanly. Buster Keaton would have loved this movie, I think. (At least, the silent portions, I would imagine.)
The Black Stallion piles on one visually exhilarating scene after another involving Alec gradually gaining enough trust from the stallion to the point the Black allows Alec to ride him. And then they are both rescued and returned home to America, and it’s here the movie seems to stumble just a bit. After the grand vistas of their desert refuge, the white picket fences and tree-lined avenues of 1940s suburbia is a tad underwhelming. When the Black gets spooked by garbagemen and runs off, we do get a nice contrast of seeing this semi-mythical creature of a bygone age galloping past storefronts and hurdling fruit crates.
Alec chases the Black and eventually finds him in a seemingly deserted barn owned by one Henry Dailey, an ex-jockey played to utter perfection by Mickey Rooney. To say Rooney’s performance in The Black Stallion is “natural” is an understatement. And to older audience members familiar with Rooney’s performance as a jockey in the 1944 film National Velvet, this must have been like seeing the remaining members of the Ghostbusters reunite in Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021). When he trains Alec how to ride the Black, you get this incredible sense of a man tapping a massive reservoir of knowledge for the benefit of the next generation. I don’t know if I’m accurately describing this facet of Rooney’s performance, but if you watch the movie, you’ll see what I mean.
As do so many other movies featuring horses (not all, but many), The Black Stallion culminates with a horse race, this one pitting the Black against the two fastest horses in the country. As we are fed information about how and why this race comes about, I particularly noticed how one phrase was repeated at least twice: “They’ll never let him run…he doesn’t have any papers.” No doubt there are horse enthusiasts who know what that means. I haven’t the foggiest clue what they’re talking about, but the cool thing is…it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter now, and it certainly didn’t matter when I saw it as a kid. It’s enough to know that “papers” are something other horses have, but the Black doesn’t, and that seems pretty important to some people, no matter how fast he runs. It’s just another way The Black Stallion is constructed to appeal to audiences of all stripes, be they equestrian aficionados or rank amateurs. There are not a lot of films that can do that, and I don’t know if The Black Stallion gets recognized enough for that accomplishment.
The climactic horse race ends exactly how you would expect it to end. Formulaic? Of course. But what a race! The cinematography, editing, Oscar-winning sound design, and carefully restrained use of the musical score all combine to create a moment every bit as thrilling as any NASCAR race. Even now, watching the movie for this review, I fell into the moment all over again, smiling with delight as Alec and the Black pound their way around the track, hooves thundering on the dirt, pumping my fists when Alec discards that pesky helmet and goggles, and those other horses ahead of them get closer and closer…
Any lover of horses owes it to themselves to find and watch The Black Stallion. Kids will get a kick out of it, but adults will, too, perhaps on another, more nostalgic level. (That could just be me projecting based on my own childhood memories, but I stand by it.)
QUESTIONS FROM EVERYONE’S A CRITIC
- Which character were you most able to identify with? In what way?
Well, for me, there’s no question I identify with Alec. I still remember how I felt watching this movie for the first time. I mean, I didn’t necessarily want to BE Alec, but he was my entry into the world of the movie. I knew how he felt when he was trying to convince his mother to let him ride in a race. I knew what he must have felt at the very beginning of the movie when his curiosity about the Black overcame his very real fear of such a powerful animal. And I thrilled when he raised his hands in triumph during the horse race. (Kind of an easy answer, to be honest, but…there you go.
- If you were to make a movie starring animals, what animals would you choose, and why?
…well, as I mentioned before, great white sharks are my favorite animals, but they are notoriously difficulty to film, as shark cinematographer “Three-Fingers” Joe will tell you. I’d have to go with dogs. Much easier to train, plus every day they see you arrive on set, they’ll treat you like they thought you’d be gone forever. My film would be a comedy/sci-fi story involving a cat’s brain being transplanted into a dog’s body. Maybe get Paul Rudd to do the voice of the dog. …it’s a work in progress.