Carroll Ballard’s first feature film, The Black Stallion (1979), is a lot like Jane Campion’s more recent The Piano, but without the sex. A good thing, too, since it would be a terrible waste if any parents had qualms about making The Black Stallion a family tradition. This is one of the very, very small number of family movies where a classic storyline is delivered as a cinematic tour-de-force. Through his inspired use of photography, composition, and editing, Ballard reminds his viewers that the medium is meant to be as magical as the message.
Almost every camera angle in The Black Stallion comes as more or less of a surprise: an odd angle across the deck of a storm-tossed ship, a shot of a horse swimming in the sea seen from underneath, or balletic aerial tracking shots of the castaways, horse and boy, on their island paradise. Extreme close-ups make an encounter with a hooded snake the stuff of nightmares, while no editing at all turns 11-year-old Alec Ramsey’s first attempt to feed the Black into a pas de deux worthy of Ballanchine. If there were any run-of-the-mill shots in this movie, I must have missed them.
Choosing original perspectives from which to view things is one mark of an exceptional director’s work; another is the ability to edit dramatic sequences together in a way which allows a viewer to experience them from within rather than without. Virtual reality before its time. The standard was set once & forever by the Russian director Sergei Eisenstein, in the spectacular Odessa Steps sequence of Potemkin (1925). Eisenstein cut in an accelerating rhythm from the revolutionary crowd moving down the steps of the port, to the soldiers moving upwards with fixed bayonets to intercept them, to a baby carriage rolling out of control down the same steps. Although lesser directors have plagiarized the Odessa Steps montage countless times, there have been few original sequences with the same intensity. The shipwreck scene in The Black Stallion is one. I’d have about as much luck trying to describe it in words as I’d have telling you what Picasso’s Guernica looks like.
Carrol Ballard obviously cared about what everything in his film looked like. The horse, a magnificent Arabian stallion named Cass-olé, is a marvel of muscle and sheen and pride. The racetrack (actually the Fort Erie Racetrack near Toronto) looks like the equine equivalent of W.P. Kinsella’s Field of Dreams. Period detail is flawless, from the facade of the Liberty Theatre right down to the wooden golf clubs and the soap (Eagle Brand) on the bathroom shelf. Flawless, except that this is perfection in the service of mythology. Like a Norman Rockwell painting, or Ray Bradbury short story, the world of The Black Stallion is both as real, or as fantastic, as your children’s dreams. Call it Magic Realism. It began perhaps in fairy tales, appeared in mid-century in the work of Jean Cocteau and Rene Magritte, and continues today in the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami, and the art of Emily Carr and Alex Colville.
You know Ballard is in love with the way things should look when you consider the gambling scene early in The Black Stallion: each character around the table is infinitely more colourful, and impossible, than the plot demands. Other scenes in the film drink in the play of light on water, sky, stone, wood, and flesh the way Adam & Eve might have when they first opened their eyes in the Garden.
Visual quality is one reason I chose to draw a parallel with The Piano. Another is musical scoring. It’s often incredible what doesn’t get nominated for an Academy Award. Last year, it was Michael Nyman’s music for The Piano, certainly one of the finest original compositions ever written for the movies. In 1979, it was Carmine Coppola’s intriguing musical patchwork quilt for The Black Stallion. Blending orchestral and folk instrumentation, shifting from symphonic scoring to scoring for hammered dulcimer or banjo or xylophone, weaving Mediterranean rhythms with medieval ones, Coppola created a musical soundscape as unique as the spaces in which the characters themselves moved. Ballard and his sound editor, Alan Splet, made the soundscape even more interesting by adding in the visceral pounding of ship’s engines, the relentless beat of stopwatches counting down, the myriad voices of wind and water, and Cass-olé’s fascinating register of snufflings, neighs, and whinneys. Listening to the stallion is like listening to those mesmerizing recordings of whales in the sea.
And speaking of the horse itself, one is forced into the distinctly uncharitable observation that the one in this movie has a far greater emotional range than any of several human action movie stars one could name. (I would name them, were it not for the fact that they all seem to have black belts in various intimidating martial arts.) The actors in The Black Stallion fare more favorably by comparison. Kelly Reno makes a fine, young soulmate for the Black; Mickey Rooney was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the trainer who dusts off a few old dreams for his new charges.
The Black Stallion’s story of a boy and horse first stranded on a desert island, then rescued and racing at the Belmont stakes, is beautiful and unreal. But then so is the lunar halo which on rare occasions fills the sky above the East Shore on a clear, cold winter’s night. With any luck, you’ll see them both someday.
Also recommended: Ballard’s terrific adaptation of Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf (1983), and the breathtaking sailboat racing sequences in his most recent film, Wind (1992). The work of Ballard’s director of photography, Caleb Deschanel, is on display in Being There, The Right Stuff, and The Natural.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
“I just gotta ride.” –Alec Ramsey
A boy and his horse. It’s all you really need.
Oh, and maybe a director with as remarkable a visual signature as Carroll Ballard’s, a young lead as talented as Kelly Reno, a stallion as stunning as Cass-Olé, Caleb Deschanel as your cinematographer, Carmine Coppola as your composer, and Mickey Rooney. The film won an Oscar for Alan Splet’s sound editing, and picked up awards at other festivals for directing, film editing, and cinematography. One reviewer mentioned that this was the film Mickey Rooney was proudest of. That doesn’t surprise me.
One thing in particular that stood out for me on this latest viewing of The Black Stallion was the quality of Carmine Coppola’s score. It’s minimalism at its most evocative, leaning towards lyrical understatement rather than fanfare. I’d put it on my list of all-time favorite scores. The film can almost dispense with dialogue because the music, the soundscape, and the images speak volumes.
Something else that struck me: the magic doesn’t end when Alex and the stallion are “rescued” and brought back to North America. It must have been enormously tempting to set up a conflict between the two worlds, between constraints of “civilisation” and the freedom of the island paradise, but instead Ballard (and the screenwriters) chose love and beauty over shallow dialectics. They chose to reach for the sublime in both worlds.
Carroll Ballard proved he was no one-shot wonder by going on to direct Never Cry Wolf (1983) and Fly Away Home (1996). I’ve written about both. Caleb Deschanel has been nominated 5 times for an Academy Award, and in 2010 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Society of Cinematographers. The Motion Pictures Sound Editors association gave Alan Splet a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Screenwriter Melissa Mathison followed up her work on The Black Stallion with the screenplay for E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Sadly, a severe auto accident ended Kelly Reno’s hopes of an acting career after high school. He now drives 18-wheelers.
The current Imdb rating of 7.4 seems a bit miserly. This is one of the finest family films I know. I can’t think of a single thing the cast & crew did wrong. If the movie doesn’t have you believing that the Black Stallion is the reincarnation of Bucephalus, Alexander the Great’s horse, your heart is made of stone. If you come away with a dry eye, you’re more stoic than I. I can’t help thinking that if Alec Ramsey could just keep riding his horse on that idyllic beach, forever, the whole world would have fallen under their spell. The guns would go silent, the chains would break, the rains would fall, and we’d have heaven on earth.
I meant to read Walter Farley’s novel before I wrote this follow-up review. Instead, I picked up Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. Despite its happy ending, Black Beauty is a powerful indictment of the casual and deliberate cruelties we inflict on the animals supposedly in our care. Sewell’s choice to tell the story from the horse’s point of view makes it deeply affecting instead of bitter and polemical. Black Beauty makes a fine companion novel for Ballard’s film, showing what the Black Stallion’s life might have been like had he never escaped that ship or been born a century earlier.
Shameless plug: the East Kootenay’s Luanne Armstrong has a lovely series of young adult novels drawing upon her own love for horses. I’ve listed the titles above.