The Black Stallion: Nirvana on Horseback

On Film / Essays — Jul 14, 2015
The Black Stallion

America’s major studios lined up their biggest guns for Christmas 1979, including a World War II burlesque from Hollywood’s most commercial auteur (Steven Spielberg’s 1941), the movie launch of a cult TV franchise (Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture), and a contemporary cowboy comedy showcasing huge stars (Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman, with Jane Fonda and Robert Redford). But the film that would prove to be the season’s one action classic arrived not with a bang but a whinny. After languishing at United Artists for months, Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion popped eyes at the New York Film Festival in October (the program touted Ballard’s feature debut as “a cinematic tour de force that recalls the old Saturday matinee features”) and quickly became a legend, playing like gangbusters when it spread cross-country that winter. Indeed, watching it with a “hushed, attentive audience” at an actual Saturday matinee inspired Pauline Kael to make the famous remark “There may be a separate God for movies, at that.” Produced for under $4 million, the film grossed roughly $38 million.

The Black Stallion remains more than a rousing adventure—it’s an enchantment. The exploits of its boy hero, Alec (Kelly Reno), and his mighty black horse, the Black (Cass-Olé), overflow with primal and poetic sensations. Ballard’s work is emotionally as well as visually ravishing, whether the duo are struggling to survive the fiery wreck of a tramp steamer in storm-beaten seas, galloping across a desert island, or upending a storybook vision of small-city America circa 1946.

The movie’s first fifty minutes are mesmerizing cinema about a human-animal friendship forged in a blazing crucible and blossoming in an exotic landscape. (Ballard returns to images from this section in the final credits—among the most closely watched and applauded in movie history.) The next fifty minutes return the two heroes to civilization: a middle-class home, a modest downtown, a dusty horse barn, and a couple of racetracks. This stretch boasts a plainer, more modulated poetry. It also completes Ballard’s vision—The Black Stallion is about animal beauty, human audacity, and the need to preserve both, even in domesticated settings. Alec and the Black take your breath away when they romp in the island’s white sands and azure waters, but they also move you when they go all-out for each other down Main Street or around a track.

Ballard transforms Walter Farley’s 1941 novel—an engaging horse lover’s yarn for young readers, published when the author was an undergraduate at Columbia—into something far more remarkable and original: a homegrown piece of magical realism. The book did give Ballard an outline; it introduces not just the two lead characters but also Henry Dailey (played by Mickey Rooney in the film), a retired jockey, trainer, and all-around horseman who conspires with Alec to race the Black against the fastest pedigreed horses of the era. The climactic race of The Black Stallion carries an uncommon resonance. In it, the Black runs against two equine superstars, Cyclone and Sun Raider, recalling Seabiscuit and War Admiral, whose match race had lifted the spirits of Depression-weary America. In the movie, when Alec wants to learn about famous jockeys, Henry describes Georgie Woolf, who rode Seabiscuit against War Admiral. But Ballard’s film doesn’t succumb to race-of-the-century fever. It stays focused on the boy, the horse, and their dream of freedom, conjuring feelings that are both epic and intimate.

The thirty-three pages that Farley sets on the ship and desert island become the movie’s keynote section. After the title “Off the Coast of North Africa—1946,” Ballard brings viewers straight into Alec’s head as the freckled preadolescent watches (in Farley’s words) “water slide away from the sides of the boat.” From the start, Ballard expands on the book’s ideas while ditching anything prosaic or not in the present tense. Reno, eleven at the beginning of filming, proves to be an ideal everyboy, unaffected and infectiously alert. We’re with him as he scampers to an upper deck and sees the Black in full roar, battling with white-robed Arab handlers. In an indelible vignette of snorting, hoof-pounding fury, the Black resists being forced into a stall, and Alec scrambles across the ship to tell his father (Hoyt Axton) about the galvanizing sight. But the man is busy playing poker with a multinational group of gamblers, who bet with whatever is in their pockets. Alec’s father rubs his son’s belly for luck, and it pays off. When he dumps his winnings in their room later, he hands his son a pearl-handled pocketknife (“You never know when a knife might come in handy”) and a tiny, enticing aged-bronze sculpture of Alexander the Great’s “magic horse” Bucephalus—an element Ballard added to the story.

In the opening credits, Ballard introduced this figurine of Bucephalus in whirling sands that evoked the beginning of time. Now Ballard and his screenwriters (Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William D. Wittliff) turn it into a talisman that will connect a son’s quest to honor his father with his need to master an unbroken horse. The movie never explains why Alec and his dad are traveling together off the North African coast, but it doesn’t matter; Reno and Axton generate potent parent-child chemistry. In an exuberant illustration of “acting big” in close-up, Axton relates the legend of Bucephalus, “the blackest and strongest, the most beautiful horse that ever was.” Alec listens, transfixed, as his father tells him that Alexander was “a kid, just about your size, just about your age,” when he saved Bucephalus by proving to his own father, King Phillip II, that he could ride him.

In the film’s eeriest transition, Alec stares at Bucephalus from his bed as the figurine starts to glow and topples to the cabin floor. The storm-damaged ship is sinking and going up in flames. Amid the chaos, the boy manages to open the Black’s stall—and the crazed animal tears free of his restraints, then leaps over the railing of the burning ship. When Alec falls overboard and cries for help, the Black swims near enough for the boy to grab one of his traces. At this point, the horse takes over from Alec’s father as his protector and inspiration. Alec later uses his new knife to cut away ropes that have snagged the Black in some rocks, and then to slice off the seaweed that becomes the mainstay of their diet. The boy uses the seaweed to draw the horse to him in a game of keep-away that turns into an ecstatic bout of tag. Ballard surpasses even this exultant action choreography when Alec initiates an underwater pas de deux in shallows just deep enough to let him swim onto the horse’s back. As Alex and the Black gambol through the spectacular landscape, they suggest Adam and the animals living together before the Fall, or the gods of classical fable frolicking with their creatures. Their bond is supernal, telepathic. In one sequence, Ballard profiles their bodies against the sun and they appear to conjoin, centaurlike; when the boy slaps the stallion’s hide, it’s a cosmic love pat. Time and time again, Ballard creates dreamy panoramas out of materials that are gritty and veracious. You never tire of his vision of a white-sugar beach at different hours of the day. His motto could be T. S. Eliot’s in his Four Quartets: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

Ballard and his editor, Robert Dalva, master the narrative device of the detached first-person voice. They keep us close enough to Alec to experience his joys and agonies viscerally, yet distant enough to chart his maturation objectively. Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel’s nature imagery, vividly and delicately colored, reflects the boy’s heightened consciousness. The island—actually Sardinia—is as forbidding and enchanting as Prospero’s, and is filled with otherworldly creatures, including, most alarmingly, a cobra.

But what makes the movie transporting from beginning to end is Deschanel and Ballard’s ability to find the magic in everyday America, too—in a small U.S. city with an industrial strip on one side and a modest horse farm on another, run by Henry Dailey. (Alec’s hometown in the book is the semirural Flushing, New York, of the early 1940s; Ballard filmed these scenes in and around Toronto.) After his island experience, Alec will always yearn for untrammeled beauty. He finds it again when the Black, who has come home with him, gets skittish around a garbage man and runs away. A fruit and vegetable peddler named Snoe, played lyrically by Clarence Muse (Broadway Bill, Riding High), points the boy in the right direction. In a daring leap into fantastic talk, the peddler repeats what he says his bicorne-hat-wearing horse, Napoleon, is telling him: “You go right by a morning star . . . and you keep following that star . . . and see a large patch of green grass. Then you stop, and then you listen . . .” The sequence is framed in suggestive mists and paradisiacal greens.

Screenwriter Mathison once told me that Ballard had taught her “how to frame an idea and an emotional intent in a description. He is a uniquely eloquent visual artist.” He sees all the elements of film in unison, so he allows writers to rediscover the power of direct statement and simplicity in the most exotic or emotional contexts. Nowhere is that more evident than in the boy’s scenes with his loving, unimaginative mother. Alec may be living at home with her, but he’ll always be more of a Huckleberry Finn than a Tom Sawyer. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Oh, God!, Teri Garr had already played to comic perfection the domestic woman who can’t get on the same wavelength as the male dreamers around her. But her role here has more depth. She’s both touching and funny as she tries to treat Alec like the man of the house. In Garr’s finest dramatic scene, she spreads a blanket over the boy, who is sleeping in the backyard to be near the horse, and tells the Black, “I’m very happy to have my son back. Thank you.” Then she adds, “I wish you could have saved his father too.”

Alec learns that turning a curve on a racetrack is no less terrifying or thrilling than looking a cobra in the eye. But his real moment of truth comes when he confesses to his mother that the Black is the “mystery horse” scheduled to race Cyclone and Sun Raider, and that he intends to be the jockey. He holds Bucephalus and explains, “Dad gave it to me. Just before the storm. It reminds me of the Black and me. Alexander’s father gave it to him before he died. I was in the water. I couldn’t breathe. It was dark, and . . . I—I yelled out for Dad, but—I looked up, and there was the Black, and I grabbed on to him.” Like the audience, she now sees that Alec’s desire to race the Black is part of his father’s legacy.

It’s a unique pleasure that the boy’s mentor, the one who has brought him to the point where he can talk about his experience so honestly, is played by Mickey Rooney. Fifty-three years of experience pour into his performance as an aging but game horseman—a characterization every bit as vibrant as the emotionally resurgent ex-jockey he played in National Velvet in 1944. When he teaches Alec about riding, using nonverbal sounds and phrases like “scoot and boot,” he’s like a scat singer. When he mimes how a jockey moves in the saddle, he’s as kinetic and graceful as James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy.

At the movie’s climax, Ballard, Deschanel, and a third major collaborator, supervising sound editor Alan Splet, open viewers’ eyes and ears to the wonders of a horse going full tilt, his breath meshing with the pounding of his hooves, the air whooshing through his mane. Ballard brings all the elements together by nurturing the movie to completion from an essential core of feeling. We glide from emotion to epiphany instead of simply following a plot. Throughout his career, Ballard has continued to lift audiences into equally spellbinding realms, like the sub-Arctic expanse of Never Cry Wolf (1983) and the geese-filled Canadian skies of Fly Away Home (1996). But he has also continued to battle apathetic or insensitive producers and distributors. His second masterpiece, Duma (2005), filmed in South Africa, never received a nationwide release, though it tells an engrossing story, about an orphaned cheetah and the boy who raises him, with visionary fervor and humor.

Ballard has a genius for translating empathy into imagery. When Alec is at his peak of jubilation on the island beach, he lets go of the horse’s mane and raises his arms in celebration. Ballard returns to this captivating image after Alec repeats the rapturous act at the end of the race. Thanks to this film’s artistry, we get to share Alec’s gaiety and freedom. Creating more than a pinnacle of movie spectacle, Ballard achieves moments of pure pagan joy. Along with Alec, he seems to be proclaiming, “Look, God, no hands.”