Welcome to The Essentials, a series of articles originally published in 2016 that dared to try and create a list of essential movies for film lovers. This entry explores ‘The Black Stallion.’
Few films trust and embrace a lack of dialogue as well and as beautifully as Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion. I know, I know, a few weeks ago I sang the praises of a film centered on a romance that develops without the couple ever speaking… and now I’m doing it again?! This time is different though, I swear. This love story is about a boy and his horse.
Adventure, sports film, coming of age tale, The Black Stallion is a rarity for reasons beyond its ability to convey emotion and story through visuals rather than exposition. It lets its lead (human) character be an adventurous, imperfect boy without the modern cushion of special effects, conventional looks, or (in most cases) stunt doubles. And unlike so many others, it’s a childhood favorite that not only holds up on adult viewings but actually gets better as more of Ballard’s strengths and artistry become visible.
The film opens on a passenger ship in 1946 off the coast of Africa. Alec (Kelly Reno) watches the water over the railing before catching noise of a disturbance above. Some men are attempting to corral a spirited Arabian stallion that they’re transporting on the ship, and the proud, beautiful, and powerful creature is unlike any the boy has seen up close before. He shares the sight with his dad (the always comfortable Hoyt Axton) and gets a story and a horse figurine in return. Later that night, Alec wakes to the sound of panic and disaster as the ship begins to sink. He frees the horse and watches as it leaps into the sea before he tumbles in himself. Struggling in the waves, screams and fire filling the night sky around him, he takes hold of the horse’s mane and reins to stay afloat.
Alec awakes the next day on the shore of a desert island. Alone and afraid, he explores and comes to grips with his newfound solitude before discovering the stallion trapped in ropes amid the rocks. Once again, continuing the cycle of these two lost and abandoned souls helping each other, Alec frees the horse and watches as it runs off. Its experience with humans hasn’t been great to this point, but something has shifted, and the next time the horse appears it’s to stomp a cobra preparing to strike a prone Alec.
Most films featuring solitary characters, from the highs of Castaway and The Martian to the less high but technically impressive Gravity, refuse to let the fact that someone’s alone get in the way of onscreen dialogue. Tom Hanks talks to a volleyball, Matt Damon talks to a video diary, Sandra Bullock talks to herself – everybody talks. Ballard doesn’t feel that need here and instead he allows the relationship between Alec and the island’s only other intelligent creature to take shape visually.
There’s no dialogue for nearly thirty minutes as we watch boy and horse feel each other out, play together in the surf, and eventually move in unison as he learns to ride up and down the sandy beach. That’s almost half an hour where the only sounds are those of nature accompanied by Carmine Coppola’s (father of the film’s producer, Francis Ford Coppola) Golden Globe-nominated score, and it’s a magical adventure that speaks to the twin desires of freedom and companionship.
Reno was cast in part because he was already an avid horseback rider, and it’s his grinning face we see riding bareback at high speeds. A remake in today’s world would probably shift him up from awkward pre-teen to social media-approved twenty year-old – and then still use blue screen and frequent stunt doubles.
Rescue comes in the form of a fishing boat, and it’s a scene I think of often whenever we bring our dog to water. He loves to stand in it, but he’s no fan of swimming – unless it’s to reach my girlfriend. The fishermen take Alec in a rowboat towards their larger craft, and the horse panics, paces, and heads into the ocean to follow. They hoist the animal aboard and head home.
The impracticality of keeping a horse in their small suburban yard is clear to Alec’s mom (Teri Garr), and the problem is solved after the now nicknamed “Black” escapes for a memorable run through town. Dejected at the loss of his friend, Alec wanders the streets before meeting another man with a horse. Snoe (Clarence Muse) halts his delivery wagon and asks the boy what’s happened to him? “Everything,” is Alec’s reply, and the simplicity of the word belies the truth behind it. His whole world has shifted through near death, the loss of his father, and a bonding with a wild animal, and to the boy it collectively amounts to everything.
The more traditional nature of the film’s back half sees Alec pair with a retired trainer (Mickey Rooney, complete with photos on his wall from Rooney’s 1944 equestrian classic, National Velvet) to get Black and Alec in shape for a big race. It goes exactly where you expect it will, but even here in civilization Ballard finds moments of power without the need for dialogue. Even the race itself is a mostly breathless affair as the world fades to make room solely for the rhythmic sound of horse hooves pounding through the dirt.
Steven Spielberg’s much-maligned War Horse stole the “boy and his horse” spotlight, but Ballard’s film remains the purer tale. Emotional beats, moments of real humanity, and scenes of utter beauty play out without the need for spectacle. The film champions friendship and the importance of following your own path, and while the boy is just a boy and the horse is just a horse together they make each other so much more. In a world where children’s entertainment packages tidy lessons in CG-animated antics, The Black Stallion remains as affecting and important an alternative as ever.
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