By J.D. Lafrance
The two action/adventure films that made the greatest impression on me as a young boy were The Black Stallion (1979) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). While I’ve seen the latter countless times over the years, I realized recently that I hadn’t seen the former since my parents took me to see it in theaters back in 1979. How could this be? I seem to remember liking it enough that my folks bought me Walter Farley’s 1941 novel of the same name on which it’s based. It wasn’t exactly hard to find on home video or see occasionally on television.
I recently caught up with it and was instantly taken back to when I first saw it as a child. I was also able to appreciate its artistry more now as an adult. The Black Stallion is beautifully shot – it’s basically an art house film for children, which is unthinkable in this day and age of noisy CGI animated movies and dumbed-down live-action fare. This is due in large part to the intelligent screenplay – written by Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William D. Wittliff – and the masterful direction of Carroll Ballard who got an incredibly sensitive performance out of a young boy by the name of Kelly Reno. The film was regarded as a unique anomaly when it came out and continues to be one of the most under-appreciated children’s films.
Alec Ramsay (Kelly Reno) is a young boy traveling with his father (Hoyt Axton) on a ship off the coast of North Africa in 1946. Ballard creates an exotic mood right from the get-go with Carmine Coppola’s low-key experimental score and Caleb Deschanel’s hand-held camerawork, popular in 1970s documentaries. Alec spots a majestic-looking Arabian stallion being treated poorly by its handlers. He goes below deck to tell his father about this wonderful horse, but he’s in a high stakes card game with some shifty-looking players. The young boy takes a bunch of sugar cubes and feeds them to the horse.
Later on, Alec’s father shows his son all the loot he won in the card game. Naturally, he pockets the money, but gives the boy a pocket knife and a figurine of Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s magical horse. In an enthralling scene, he tells Alec the story of how Alexander tamed and befriended Bucephalus, foreshadowing Alec’s relationship with “The Black,” the horse on the ship. Most of the dialogue spoken in the first half of The Black Stallion is done in this scene as Ballard relies on visual storytelling, which is quite effective in the harrowing sequence where the ship is sunk by severe weather. He does an excellent job of conveying the chaos that ensues as everyone frantically tries to escape the sinking ship via nightmarish lighting and disorienting camerawork. This is an intense scene for a children’s film as Alec and The Black narrowly escape.
Both of them wash up on a small, deserted island. Alec must first gain The Black’s trust and then over time they bond, surviving by their wits. There is no dialogue during these scenes as Ballard relies on Reno’s expressive face and the way he interacts with the horse to tell the story of their emerging friendship. This is enhanced by Coppola’s wonderfully minimalist score and Deschanel’s stunning cinematography that initially presents the island as an imposing, unforgiving environment to one that gradually becomes a beautiful haven, of sorts, as Alec and the horse become more familiar with their surroundings. This entire stretch of The Black Stallion resembles a children’s adventure film as if directed by Terrence Malick as we get one stunning shot of the sky and the island after another.
What really stands out in the first half of this film is the acting of first-timer Kelly Reno. Once Alec is stranded on the island with The Black, he has to convey a whole range of emotions – fear, sadness, and wonderment – and does so convincingly. In addition, he has to interact with this horse and make us believe that they are developing an unbreakable bond. This is not an easy task for a seasoned actor much less an inexperienced child, but the lack of formal training actually works to Reno’s advantage, giving his performance an authentic feel.
I like how Ballard shows Alec’s resourcefulness on the island. For example, he shows how the boy tries to catch a fish or builds a fire for warmth or collects seaweed for The Black to eat. He also does a superb job of gradually showing Alec and the horse becoming friends. Despite saving each other’s lives early on, the horse is understandably wary of the boy, only knowing cruelty at the hands of humans. There is almost a nature documentary feel to these scenes as Ballard’s camera plays close attention to the horse’s behavior. He is fascinated by how The Black acts and in turn so are we. It is something he would return to again only with wolves in the equally impressive Never Cry Wolf (1983). There’s nothing forced or cutesy about the relationship between Alec and the horse. There is, at times, a playful quality, like when Ballard films the boy riding The Black for the first time, capturing it almost entirely from an underwater point-of-view. However, for the most part, this is a heartfelt and sincere story about two characters and it’s hard not to get caught up in their adventure.
As most critics at the time of its release noted, because the first half of The Black Stallion is so bold in its unconventional storytelling, the second half is a little anticlimactic as Alec and The Black are rescued and return home where they cross paths with Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), a veteran horse trainer who is coaxed out of self-imposed retirement by the young boy to prepare both of them for a big race. Mickey Rooney brings his trademark charm to the role while delivering a nicely understated performance as a man whose passion for racing is reignited by Alec and his mysterious horse. There is an almost haunting look of defeat on Rooney’s face when we first meet Henry, but this soon gives way to joy as he dusts off all his techniques and imparts his knowledge on the boy. These scenes take a fascinating look at what needs to be done to train not just a horse, but a rider for a race.
There was plenty of behind-the-scenes drama that took place during the making of The Black Stallion. Francis Ford Coppola was so taken with Walter Farley’s novel that he bought the rights to the entire series, envisioning sequels and possibly a T.V. series. He asked fellow UCLA classmate Carroll Ballard to develop a film adaptation with editor Walter Murch. Both Ballard and Murch found the book lacking originality and was too sentimental for their tastes. Ballard said, “I really didn’t like the book that much. I thought it was kind of a Leave It to Beaver story.” He and Murch told Coppola how they felt, which angered him. Coppola told the two men that if they didn’t like the project they could quit.
Ballard, probably realizing that this was only real shot at directing a film, stuck with it, but his friction with Coppola continued into pre-production as they disagreed over the screenplay. Melissa Mathison, one of the screenwriters, said of Ballard, “There would have been absolutely no words in The Black Stallion if he could have managed it. The meaning and feeling had to be in the picture – more photograph than moving picture.” Producers Tom Sternberg, Fred Roos and Ballard traveled to England, Morocco, Egypt and the United States looking for the right Arabian stallion to portray The Black. They found Cass Ole in San Antonio, Texas. In addition, three other horses were trained to do other things like fighting and running. Before filming began, the four horses underwent an 11-week training session. Each horse was trained to do different things so that by the start of filming the production had a loving horse, a bucking horse, a wild horse, and a race horse. Kelly Reno grew up riding horses on his parents’ 10,000-acre Colorado ranch. His mother heard about an open audition for The Black Stallion and entered her son who was chosen for the much-sought after role. He joined the training for several weeks so that he could develop a rapport with Cass Ole.
Sardinia, Italy was chose for the island sequences because of its breathtaking coastal areas and Toronto, Canada because it closely resembled the eastern seaboard of the U.S. in the late 1940s. Ballard started filming in 1977, but felt that Coppola interfered with principal photography. Bad weather was a problem during the entire Canadian shoot with the summer of ’77 being one of the rainiest and hottest on record. One day’s temperature was recorded at 115 degrees! The Sardinia shoot had its own unique logistical problems with its remote location and challenging terrain. Camera equipment had to be hand-carried in and out of the site. The sinking of the ship was recreated in a large outdoor water tank at Cinecitta Studios in Rome. An actual-sized passenger ship – the largest ever created for that tank – was built.
During principal photography, Ballard adopted an improvisational approach that upset several of the Canadian crew members. The Toronto crew that worked on The Black Stallion while filming in Canada was used to the fast working methods of T.V. production and according to cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, Ballard “wanted to be able to change his mind and shoot what he felt like shooting,” which turned out to be a very Terrence Malick-esque way of filming. Even Deschanel had his doubts about Ballard’s style of directing. The two men had worked together on some documentary films previously and so when it came to make his feature film debut, Ballard enlisted Deschanel’s expertise.
After principal photography ended, The Black Stallion began an equally turbulent post-production phase. Francis Ford Coppola originally envisioned an unconventional score and brought in jazz and classical artist William Russo, but he quickly got into disagreements with Ballard over the musical approach to be taken and the composer quit without writing a note! Carmine Coppola (Francis’ father) composed a score, but Ballard demanded so many re-writes that he ended up alienating the composer from the project. Ballard brought in Shirley Walker to develop a new underscore for some of the film’s more intimate sequences, like the ones on the island and ended up alienating her as well. Things got so bad that the director ended up rewriting multiple cues for the final edits of the film.
The Black Stallion sat on the shelf for two years! United Artists executives claimed it was unreleasable because they felt it was an art film for kids. Finally, in 1979, Coppola used his clout to get it released. The film enjoyed mostly positive reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “The first hour of this movie belongs among the great filmgoing experiences. It is described as an epic, and earns the description.” Pauline Kael said it was “one of the rare movies that achieves a magical atmosphere. Seeing it is like being carried on a magic carpet; you don’t want to come down. (it may be the greatest children’s movie ever made.)” The Los Angeles Times’ March Chalon Smith wrote, “You can forgive the film’s second half and its bowing to the push-button emotions of Hollywood; the first half of The Black Stallion, is so graceful it approaches the essence of a wonderful dream.” People magazine called it, “a lyrical film, exploding with beauty.” However, in her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Mr. Ballard’s direction, of a story designed to excite the viewer’s imagination and curiosity, instead stifles these feelings by emphasizing the cosmetic value of every frame.”
Even though it is easy to figure out how The Black Stallion will end, Ballard manages to wring every ounce of tension out of the climactic race, and does little to diminish the emotional impact. So many films that involve animals are full of silly slapstick or are rife with sappy sentimentality. The Black Stallion is refreshingly devoid of either. It is a sincere children’s film that can also be appreciated by adults who will marvel at its craftsmanship while still getting caught up in the engrossing story and the relationship between its two engaging lead characters. Ballard’s film was even better than I remember it being those many years ago. It transcends any notions of personal nostalgia and should be regarded as an under-appreciated masterpiece.
“The Black Stallion – One Tough Movie.” Arabian Horse-World. April 1978.
LoBrutto, Vincent and Harriet R. Morrison. The Coppolas: A Family Business. Praeger. 2012.
Silberg, Joel. “The Right Stuff.” American Cinematographer. January 2010.
Sragow, Michael. “E.T. Turns Thirty.” The New Yorker. October 3, 2012.
Takis, John. “Liner Notes.” The Black Stallion: Intrada Special Collection CD.
Wulff, Jennifer. “Horse Power.” People. September 17, 2001.