Posted in: Film Reviews

Review: The Black Stallion

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

The Black Stallion is more pretty than beautiful, more contrived than inspired. In reporting on the San Francisco Film Festival last fall, I wrote: “The Black Stallion, directed by Carroll Ballard for Francis Coppola’s Omni Zoetrope, was clearly a success with its ‘hometown’ audience. It’s an adaptation of the famous children’s story, and it seems designed for annual ‘prestige’ showings for the family market. It has its moments of visual beauty, but a little more poetic daring and a little less in the way of safe artiness might have made this one something more than an expertly conceived business proposition.” After a second viewing of the film recently, I still find myself feeling that way. The whole thing has an “innocent” charm about it, and there are some stunning shots. It’s pretty and nice in ways that are merely pretty nice. The story seems better suited to the format of the full-length animated cartoon, and the flashy photography draws heavily on the kinetics of the TV commercial and the imagery of travel ads. There is an obvious element of fantasy to this tale of a boy saved from a shipwreck by a wondrous black stallion which becomes the boy’s constant companion and which said boy rides to victory in a big challenge race against two top thoroughbreds.

But while there is a note of wide-eyed childlike wonderment early on, the film as a whole fails to develop any sustained sense of the magical spell the story calls for. Caleb Deschanel’s eye-catching color photography has the cumulative effect of pictures designed primarily to draw attention to the photographer’s own skills. Deschanel’s instincts seem those of the commercially astute still-photographer, and one consequence of this is that The Black Stallion is less a movie than a huge coffeetable book full of cutely composed shots of rock formations, dripping leaves, sun-drenched beaches, galloping horses, and children in “sensitive” poses. Director Ballard may have given Deschanel too free a rein, but little in The Black Stallion suggests the hand of a skilled director. He and Deschanel have filled their movie with the arty camera angles and the pseudo-poetic closeups of the short subject trafficking in poignant views of “the little things in life.” But these two shutterbugs pursue their poignant details with such literalminded excess that the attentiveness they seek becomes self-canceling. Allusions to Bucephalus and Alexander the Great drag momentary mythical pretensions into the story, but the film’s already tenuous grip on the boy’s “primal” relationship with the horse is dissipated by the loving but rather forced attempts to relive the horseracing romances of Old Hollywood.

Not even Mickey Rooney, obviously well beyond his days of MGM-style innocence, can help on this account. Rooney plays the aging trainer who comes out of retirement to prepare the boy and the stallion for the big race; he gives a sound and routine performance. Terri Garr, as the boy’s mother, oozes the mannerisms of the Seventies in a movie supposedly set in 1946. Hoyt Axton plays the boy’s father; he is lost in the second-reel shipwreck and his memory is resurrected only for some phony pre-race motivating. Myopic-looking Kelly Reno probably got the role of the boy on the basis of his horsemanship but, given the movie’s mode of operation, he is right in most other respects, too. The sense of period is very convincing except—perversely—in its resurrection of two stock characters of the distant past: the mystically avuncular old Negro (Clarence Muse) with his pipe and fringe of white hair, and the relentlessly villainous Arab (Dogmi Larbi, The Man Who Would Be King’s blowhard chieftain Ootah)—this one actually steals the kid’s life preserver when the ship is sinking; he also steals sugar from the horse! But there are good points. Some of the isolated moments are very fine: a shot of the horse galloping into view along a distant line of Mediterranean beach; a tilting shot of the struggle for survival in the night waters as the ship (with decorous flames in its portholes) starts to go under in the background; great bursts of energy amid a garbled sense of time and space in the horse race sequence. And there’s a certain quaint charm in even this patently synthetic attempt to recreate a mindless movieland free of sex and violence and other complicating realities.

© 1981 Peter Hogue

Direction: Carroll Ballard. Screenplay; Melissa Mathison & Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff, after the novel by Walter Farley. Cinematography: Caleb Deschanel; second-unit: Stephen H. Burum; additional cinematography: Robert Dalva. Art direction: Aurelio Crugnola, Earl Preston. Editing: Robert Dalva. Horse trainer: Corky Randall. Music: Carmine Coppola. Production: Fred Roos, Tom Sternberg; executive producer: Francis Ford Coppola.
The players (in order of appearance): Kelly Reno, Dogmi Larbi, Hoyt Axton, Teri Garr, Clarence Muse, Mickey Rooney, Ed McNamara, Michael Higgins; Cass-ole (the Black).

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.