Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Black Stallion (1979)

The Black Stallion (Carroll Ballard, 1979) Francis Ford Coppola began his desire to film literary classics in the 1990's, not with Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' but with this children's classic, never before filmed. For the director was hired one of Coppola's USC Mafia, Carroll Ballard, a documentary-maker whose eye for construction, framing, and telling a story with images and music and attention to sound would all be used to their full effect in this tall tale of a boy and his horse. 

What is so exciting about The Black Stallion is that so much of it is done not with dialog (the taut, sparse script is by E.T. scribe Melissa Mathison as well as The Journey of Natty Gann writer Jeanne Rosenberg and "Lonesome Dove" scripter Bill Wittliff), but with sumptuous images (cinematography achieved by the very brilliant Caleb Deschanel) that are long on atmosphere and detail and conceived from interesting angles that provide a curious view of the world, that evoke the sense of being a child's point-of-view, where everything is a chance at discovery*
The talent in front of the camera is great, too. The burden of the piece falls on young Kelly Reno, probably chosen for his ability as an equestrian, rather than his acting skills. But even there, he communicates such a fresh "kid-ness" that seems unstudied and unreserved. Terri Garr plays another of the "thankless" Mom-roles she was typecast in during the '80's. But two performances stand out--one from a newcomer, and the other from a movie-"lifer."
Hoyt Axton had done a few television appearances and made a good living as a singer-songwriter when he came to The Black Stallion. He also had a voice so full of bass that it seemed like it was merely an echo of the rumble emanating from his barrel-chest. His role as young Alec's father has one scene that is all-Axton, literally--where he tells his son a bed-time story about the horse he won in a poker game and the horse of myth that was allegedly its forebear. Axton performs the scene staring straight into the camera lens, but the effect it has on audiences is electrifying--he's telling the story to us. It was probably unnerving for the performer to have the camera right under his nose, but Axton powers through it, filling the frame, and putting us in the position of that boy. For those few minutes, his father is his entire world.
The other amazing work is by, of all people, Mickey Rooney, as a down-on-his-luck horse trainer to whom "The Black" seems to be drawn. Of course, Rooney's background includes playing the trainer of National Velvet at an early age, he could have played this role in his sleep if he wanted to. But Rooney takes his M-G-M schooling and leavens it with an almost "method" interiorization to create an enduring, memorable portrait of a trainer gone to pasture who has a miracle land in his lap. His work melds seamlessly with Ballard's "observer" style, and the role made people take notice of him ("Oh yeah, he was good, wasn't he?") and rescued him from a life of dinner theater and "Love Boat" appearances. Rooney is amazing in it.
But it's Ballard's show, as invisible as he is in it. The backbone of the movie, which buys all sorts of cinematic good will is the 30 minute long idyll of the boy and the mysterious horse that becomes his quest and his companion in his castaway existence. Wordless and buoyed by Carmine Coppola's themes (imaginatively and meticulously arranged by an uncredited Shirley Walker), it is at points charming, terrifying and poetic. Once off the island Ballard makes the most of a more conventional narrative style, and though he comes close--particularly in one of the best, and most pilfered horse-racing sequences in movies--he has a hard time trying to match the beauty of that island sequence.
But here's how good The Black Stallion is. I went to see it on its opening night, sitting in the back of the theater to avoid the vocal anarchy of an audience filled with children. After a little bit of rumble as the movie got going, the kids didn't make a peep, didn't get bored, didn't make endless trips to the bathroom, and stayed glued to their seats, their eyes glued to the screen. And they stayed that way through the entire End Credits that played over unused footage from that island sequence, only making a disappointed "Awww.." when the house-lights came up. That truly is, as the movie says, a "miracle horse."
Looking at it again, of course the kids responded to it. This world is full of new sights taken from an angle a kid might want to explore, the boy--Alec--doesn't say much, making him a character that doesn't betray what he knows, so you have to watch him. He is thrown into a scary situation where he learns to fend for himself, and he becomes a devoted friend and care-taker to a powerful animal. He is what every kid wants to be--an adult who has passed childhood behind and can do what he pleases. What kid wouldn't love a movie like this?

And what adult, either?

The Black Stallion is one of the best movies I've ever seen.

* And I'd be remiss not to point out the contributions of sound editor Alan Splet, who became best known for his work with David Lynch. His comprehensive recordings of horses let you know the emotions of "The Black" at every point in the film. Incredible work.
Bob Peak preliminary idea for The Black Stallion poster.

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