BlackStallioncoverGrade: B+
Entire family: Yes, but . . .
1979, 117 min., Color
Rated G
Criterion Collection
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Featured audio: DTS-HD MA 2.0 Surround
Includes: 17×11 color poster, five short films by Ballard
Bonus features:  B-/C+
Amazon link

The Black Stallion—at least the 1979 adaptation that Francis Ford Coppola “presents”—is an interesting hybrid. It’s part family movie and part indie/art house film. Director Carroll Ballard takes the 1941 book for young readers and infuses the story of a boy and a wild horse who “save” each other with indie film sensibilities and art-house cinematography.

The result is a film that’s obviously made for adults but suitable for children. There are a few less warm fuzzies and sappy moments in this hybrid (a good thing!), though the pacing in the first act might seem a bit too leisurely for the youngest viewers. There’s not much you can do for them except to assure them that the action picks up, but older children who squirm can be shown the luxurious cinematography from Caleb Deschanel (Zooey Deschanel’s father), with breathlessly original shots and angles and the space for those shots to breathe and expand in our consciousness.

BlackStallionscreen1Ballard isn’t quite as lavish with his plotting and narrative. Some directors like to show rather than tell; Ballard likes to suggest rather than show. We see a young boy and his father on a steamer off the coast of North Africa, where Dad (Hoyt Axton) is gambling with dangerous-looking people, and the boy, Alec (Kelly Reno), has the run of the ship. The boy glimpses a wild black stallion roped and whipped by Arab trainers and forced into one of the ship’s holds. Feeling sorry for the horse, Alec returns with sugar cubes he swiped but is caught and treated almost as roughly by the Arab. Shortly thereafter, his father shares with him a trinket from his poker winnings: a small statuette of Alexander the Great’s horse. We hear the story of how the horse was so wild the king was going to put him down, but conceded that the boy Alexander could keep him if he could ride him. Of course, that tiny statuette and story become a controlling metaphor for the narrative of The Black Stallion, for soon afterwards a violent storm kicks up, the boy releases the horse so he won’t go down with the ship, and after watching him leap into the sea the boy is thrown overboard and calls for help.

So begins a relationship between the boy and the horse that develops on the island until he’s rescued by a group of men who also take the animal that Alec refuses to leave behind. And yet, what Alec does leave behind is any apparent feeling for his father. We really don’t know what happened to the man, nor did we see any emotional reaction in Alec after he awakens on the beach of a desert island. He’s as concerned about what happened to his father as he is about finding fresh drinking water (a detail that’s never addressed). We aren’t told, as readers of the book were, that the two of them had been visiting an uncle in India, so viewers really have no idea why the pair was on a ship so far from his home somewhere in the states where horses are raced. Even after Alec returns home to his mother (Terri Garr), we aren’t given much in the way of information.

BlackStallionscreen2But this is an impressionistic film, one that is more image-driven and scene-driven than it is dependent on plot, especially in the early going. For a while, it’s like Cast Away, but with a horse instead of a volleyball. Then turns into National Velvet, but with a teenage boy instead of a teenage girl, and a thoroughbred horse race rather than steeplechase. Perhaps not coincidentally, just as actor Mickey Rooney played the role of the former jockey and mentor in National Velvet who helps young Velvet train for the steeplechase, he’s a former jockey and mentor here too, helping Alec to learn what it takes to harness all that wild energy and race Black, as he’s simply called.

The payoff will ultimately satisfy young viewers if they can make it through the slower parts. But frankly, it wouldn’t hurt today’s children to learn how to appreciate those slow-down moments in life—especially when they’re so beautifully filmed.

If you’re building a Blu-ray collection, by all means, add this title. But the master had a lot of grain that carries over onto the HD release, so this title would probably look just as good on DVD. As for the bonus features, they’re geared for adults—though older, curious young filmmakers-in-waiting might be drawn to several of the five short films by Ballard, especially one on the “Rodeo” and another in which Ballard interviewed centenarians talking about what L.A. was like a hundred years ago . . . juxtaposed against the chaos of images that flood 1971 Los Angeles. What he does will inspire young filmmakers, who will find a way to take the best of what he does and speed it up for the current time and generation.

Language: Clean as can be
Sex: Same here
Violence: That brief boat beat-down, a violent storm, and a cobra incident
Adult situations: Loss of the father
Takeaway: It IS possible to have it both ways, to craft a film that’s aesthetically pleasing out of a story intended for a young audience.