A boy and his horse; an intoxicating combination for author, Walter Farley, who began the odyssey of his ‘Black Stallion’ franchise in 1941 while still a student, publishing the first novel during his undergraduate year at Columbia University. Over the next 40 plus years, Farley would spin off the tale into a lucrative life’s work; his twenty-first novel published posthumously in 1989. For some time, director/writer, Francis Ford Coppola had followed Farley’s career, enamored with the Black Stallion book phenomenon. Ironically, given the series’ potential and enduring legacy amongst its primarily adolescent readership, Hollywood never came to call until Coppola elected to make The Black Stallion (1979) under his Zoetrope Studios banner, brokering a lucrative distribution deal with United Artists. Alas, neither company was in a particularly envious position to tackle such an ambitious project in 1979. UA had, in fact, lost its top tier creative director, Arthur Krim and most of the personnel responsible for its memorable roster of screen successes throughout the sixties in an unglamorous purge and split from its holding company, Transamerica. As for Coppola’s ‘little independent that could’, the genius behind such smash hits as The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation quickly realized being one’s own master presented an entirely different itinerary of responsibilities, some for which the enterprising Coppola, though ambitious, was ill-suited to maintain.
For starters, Coppola’s desire to resurrect the glamor and autonomy of Hollywood’s once galvanized ‘studio system’, whereby virtually all creative personnel needed to make movies were under a single umbrella and ready to go, evolved during a period where virtually all the iconic studios that had once self-governed and reigned supreme were under siege from external forces. The old-time moguls retired or died out; the studios annexed for their real estate by conglomerates like Kinney or Gulf + Western, or worse, men of conflicting vision, like Las Vegas high-rolling financier, Kirk Kerkorian, knew nothing as to how to make the industry click as it should. Arguably, they cared even less about it, buying into a time-honored ‘name’ and ‘trademark’ to pursue other business interests while demolishing the past during this topsy-turvy epoch of hostile corporate takeovers and sell-offs. Under this oppressive cloud, Coppola endeavored to single-handedly revive the system, gathering together an impressive and very optimist troop of then contemporary film makers who shared his vision, girded their loins and moved to San Francisco. The goal: to reestablish those halcyon yesteryears of yore. It would be an ill-fated and almost immediate uphill climb; Coppola quickly realizing he lacked the essential funds to fulfill his dream, and thus, needed to commit himself to labors apart from this first love, the establishment of American Zoetrope Studios.
UA had come to the rescue of Coppola’s pet project, The Black Stallion, mostly because of his reputation; the studio execs joining Coppola for a private screening of the film, expecting to see a rough cut of Apocalypse Now, and walking away sweaty-palmed with the frantically perplexed notion they had been hornswoggled into investing in a very costly ‘art house’ movie, possessing little potential to earn back its $2,700,000 investment. All evidence to the contrary, after The Black Stallion went on to gross more than $37,799,643 at the box office, making it an unqualified smash hit for all concerned. The man Coppola hand-picked to direct the movie was Carroll Ballard, a gifted documentarian who, fortunately for The Black Stallion, had never directed a feature film before and, in hindsight, has directed very few since. The Black Stallion benefits immensely from the purity of Ballard’s clear-eyed vision to convey what is essentially a fairly conventional story in a decidedly most unconventional way.
The first half of The Black Stallion ranks among a handful of perfectly realized set pieces; thoroughly polished and practically silent. The relationship between thirteen year old Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and Cass Ole, the champion Arabian stallion, reconciled in the unlikeliest bonds of friendship after the Drake, the luxury liner each was sailing on, sinks in a hellish fire and storm at sea, is transformed by Ballard into an impressionistic series of sumptuous sunsets and silhouettes along the craggy and tan-sand Sardinian coastline, lensed by cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel. For these introspective moments where the boy and the beast regard one another on familiar terms for mutual survival, Ballard relied on two stallions; the other, Fae Jur, each under a trainer’s guidance; also, Kelly Reno’s uncanny mastery in the saddle; a born rider performing all his own bare-backed stunt work with fearless resolve. For the climactic race, another stallion, El Mokhtar, an Egyptian Arabian racehorse, would be employed, Reno again doing his stunts on very different terrain and under unique working conditions, also astride his new mount, with seamless grace and passion. Born in Pueblo, Colorado, Reno bypasses the generic qualities of his freckle-faced visage, ever more the Nave than naïve and illustrating the intangible qualities of a memorable child star.
Given the flourish and exhilaration director, Ballard invests into this penultimate and victorious race that caps off the picture, all of its crowd-cheering hoopla somehow fails to live up to the first half of his masterpiece. The opening scenes in The Black Stallion are grippingly intense; the perilous sinking of the Drake in a firestorm and gale off the coast of South Africa, young Alec Ramsey’s tearful realization his father (Hoyt Axton) - with whom he had been traveling - is lost at sea, the stirring and transformative symbiosis between boy and horse unexpectedly blossoming against ruggedly picturesque backdrops and played virtually without dialogue or any sort of maudlin flourish of underscore to punctuate the obvious; Ballard’s extraordinary command of cinema space reveals his ability to convey so much with a well-placed camera, an incredibly disciplined mount and trainer, and finally, a child star who intuitively has found the core of this character’s soul from within; a simple strength, yet penetrating in its clairvoyant gaze toward the horizon.
In just a few moments, Ballard establishes the adoring father/son relationship; Mr. Ramsey, a portly gambler, regaling his inquisitive son with the legend of Alexander the Great and his taming of the wild horse, Bucephalus. In the dead of night, Alec is thrown from his bunk, the Drake listing badly as Mr. Ramsey drags Alec topside for the evacuation of the ailing vessel. The stallion is set free from the ship’s cargo hold, leaping over the Drake’s side. Only moments later, Alec will be swept away into these raging waters, saved from certain death by the stallion and awakening the next morn on sandy shores unharmed. What follows are mere snippets in a presumably lengthy evolution of an unlikely and burgeoning, yet ultimately satisfying friendship; director, Ballard’s keen eye for capturing impressions rather than whole scenes, done in a sort of time lapse montage of sunrises and sunsets: Alec freeing the stallion from his knotted restraints with a pocket knife given to him by his father; the stallion reciprocating the favor by stamping to death under hoof a cobra about to strike at Alec; a series of aerial helicopter shots capturing Alec astride the stallion, tugging vigorously at its mane, repeatedly tossed from his mount into the surf. There is a genuine sense of liberation pulsating through these moments of self-discovery; the audience sharing in Alec’s triumph to ‘tame’ the stallion.
Bringing cast and crew back to Canada for the domestic shoot after Alec has been rescued and reunited with his mother (Teri Garr) proves a minor hiccup in the film’s narrative. It isn’t only that Ballard found the Canuck crew’s punch-clock mentality at odds with his experimentalist approach to planning a scene. It’s just not all that interesting to observe these two free spirits – boy and beast - suddenly pent up and confined within the rigid social structure of Depression era ‘America’; Alec is given a hero’s welcome at school. But his seeming inability to re-assimilate into polite society is somehow awkwardly truncated. Mercifully, this stalemate is short-lived, the stallion rebelling and running away with Alec pursuing it through center town and beyond, to a remote farm; pointed in the right direction by the kindly coachman, Snoe (Clarence Muse). The farm is run by Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), a former jockey and trainer whose career, like his bucolic hamlet, has gone to seed. Dailey is inspired by Alec’s resolve to hone the stallion’s raw energy into a champion race horse. He agrees to house the stallion in his barn and coach Alec in the ways of a skilled rider.
Mickey Rooney was no stranger to this horse-racing milieu, having coaxed a precocious Elizabeth Taylor in the immortal 1944 family drama, National Velvet. The last act of The Black Stallion might just as well have been ripped from the pages of Enid Bagnold’s classic novel; the child coaxed by an old sport to ride a mystery horse onto victory. To ensure the stallion gains credence as a champion race horse, even if his papers are not in order, Dailey and Snoe peek the interests of horse-racing announcer and aficionado, Neville (Michael Higgins). The Black is observed by Neville racing around the track during a torrential downpour; Neville, more than mildly impressed by the horse’s time and shortly thereafter embarking upon an impromptu publicity campaign to fire the imaginations of his fans. Dailey teaches Alec the art of being a pro-jockey. Without too much delay, the pair convinces Mrs. Ramsey Alec is up to the task of riding alongside seasoned professionals.
Her reluctance evaporates into mild concern, the day of the race at Santa Anita predictably begun with a false start to heighten the sense of possible danger and dread. The stallion is involved in a tussle with another champion thoroughbred at the start gate, its’ leg badly bloodied in the conflict. However, Alec quickly regains control of the Black. The two ride on from a treacherous disadvantage, regaining the lead by two full lengths to win the race. The crowd elated, Alec and the stallion regard one another inside the victory circle; Mrs. Ramsey planting a big kiss on her son’s cheek, leaving Snoe and Dailey to toast their victory. The moment dissolves to a montage of the stallion and Alec back on the beach where first they became one; the credits rolling with a sudden flourish of Carmine Coppola’s underscore.
Begun as Francis Ford Coppola’s loving tableau to the beloved children’s novel, The Black Stallion on celluloid retains its’ ability to be rousing and, in spots, lyrical. Interestingly, UA had absolutely no faith in the project, leaving Coppola’s private screening, fretting needlessly about the its uncharacteristic ‘silent’ first act, its unconventional editing and pacing, and, above all else, worried their investment of capital had been flushed down the proverbial crapper. As The Black Stallion’s executive producer, Coppola’s determination to back Carroll Ballard in virtually all his storytelling decisions showed incredible confidence in his work; also, the project - a fidelity well rewarded when, on a fairly limited release, The Black Stallion went on to earn more than ten times its initial investment. What can I tell you? Kids and animals: a winning combination, its potency unlikely surpassed by any other modus operandi in film-making.
Criterion Home Video debuts a stunning new 4K master of The Black Stallion, previously released in a rather disappointing hi-def incarnation by Fox Home Video. Of late, Fox has shown glimmers of a renewed commitment to some of its back catalog in their alliance with Criterion after a very dry spell, hobbled by more than a few false starts along the way and some truly terrible mastering efforts that, perhaps, are soon to become a thing of the past: at least, we sincerely hope so and will continue to wait for better things as time wears on. The original Fox release of The Black Stallion suffered from some thickness and a lack of indigenous grain. This new 4K Criterion reissue reinstates an overall more naturalistic look to its source material. It’s obvious Fox has gone back to ground zero for this re-release; the new 1080p disc taking a quantum leap forward in all departments, particularly color saturation and the eradication of age-related dirt, nicks and scratches that plagued the previous Blu-ray.
Black levels remain richly satisfying. A few overhead inserts retain an unusual thickness with exaggerated grain levels. As cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel has pointed out The Black Stallion’s budget was hardly conducive to high-key lighting techniques. Barring the limitations of vintage film stocks and less than perfect light levels, Deschanel has done an extraordinary job lensing this movie. This disc accurately recaptures the true essence of his cinematography. Overall, the elements are in very good shape, colors vividly rendered, fine detail exceling even during the darkest sequences shot at night. Grain is exaggerated during these night sequences, but not to egregious levels. The Black Stallion was originally released theatrically sporting a six-track stereo mix prepared for its large format 70mm exhibition. The Blu-ray features a 2.0 DTS stereo mix with impressive dynamic range, particularly during the racing sequences where the intensity and precision of galloping hooves provides an uncanny and genuinely heart-palpitating moment of exhilaration. Dialogue, alas, remains marginally problematic, occasionally suffering from a slightly muffled characteristic.
Criterion has added some impressive extras to this disc, beginning with a leaflet essay by film critic, Michael Sragow. We get five short documentary films shot by Carroll Ballard: Pigs! (1965), The Perils of Priscilla (1969, made for the Humane Society and following the exploits of a lost house cat in L.A.), Rodeo (1969), Seems Like Only Yesterday (1971, following the reflections of twelve centenarians) and Crystallization (1974, an educational short photographed entirely through a microscope). Directly related to The Black Stallion, we get a nearly fifty minute conversation between Ballard and critic, Scott Foundas; almost a half hour with Caleb Deschanel, and a brief video piece featuring stills photographer, Mary Ellen Mark. Finally, there’s the original theatrical trailer – badly worn and strangely not indicative of the movie itself. Bottom line: The Black Stallion is an exquisite ‘coming of age’ adventure yarn. More children ought to see it today. More adults too!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)