Lovers of film often argue about which decade is the greatest for filmmaking. For those who favor the 1970s, one man often typifies this great decade: Francis Ford Coppola, director of Apocalypse Now and the Godfather movies. A lesser known fact is that he also executive produced one of the greatest children’s films ever made, The Black Stallion, in 1979.
Filmed with breathtaking cinematography, a score by Francis Ford Coppola’s father Carmine Coppola that is at turns majestic and exotic, and gentle direction with a loving touch by Carroll Ballard (who most recently directed Duma), there hasn’t been another children’s film like it before or since.
The storyline is simple and touching; the landscapes and the stallion in them are sweeping and stirring. Melissa Mathison, famous for penning E.T., wrote the screenplay along with Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff, and her gift for storytelling through a child’s eyes shines through. The film was adapted from Walter Farley’s 1941 children’s classic of the same title.
The story begins as a young boy, Alec (Kelly Reno) and his father (Hoyt Axton) are at sea aboard a ship that is carrying a mysterious Arabian black stallion.
Alec is immediately taken with the stallion in spite of the fact that the wranglers find it almost impossible to contain the steed. In one unforgettable scene, which is seared upon my own memory from childhood, Alec places sugar cubes at the opening of the horse’s stall. We see only the horse’s nuzzle as it eats them one by one, a tender first meeting between the boy and the horse.
Tragedy strikes when the boat hits rough seas and is struck by lightening. As the boat sinks, Alec manages to free the horse and escape, but Alec’s father isn’t so lucky. With no life vest, Alec floats alone amidst the wreckage. The horse comes to his rescue in a surprising twist, and Alec awakens on a desolate but magnificent Sardinian shore the following morning. So begins a series of events in which the boy and the horse save each other’s life multiple times. Saving each other, they are saving themselves, and thus they form a profound and unshakeable bond. Alec calls the horse “the Black.”
The mesmerizing scenes set against the rocky cliffs and sweeping coastline of the island of Sardinia alone make the film worth seeing. Whether it’s the halo effect of the setting sun against the horse and boy’s silhouettes, or the underwater photography of the horse swimming with the boy, the scenes will spark your child’s imagination. The film has remarkably little dialogue, and Ballard allows the music and the imagery of the boy and the horse to do most of the storytelling.
When Alec returns to civilization, bringing the horse with him in an incredible turn of events, we understand the boy and the horse’s sense of alienation, and almost a longing to return to that free-spirited time along the rocky cliffs and coast. But new adventures lie ahead when Alec meets Henry (Mickey Rooney), a former champion jockey, and together they realize that the Black’s destiny may lie in winning the horse race of the century. Alec wants to show everybody that the Black is “the fastest horse in the world.” But will the Black, who is wild at heart, prove to be “too much horse” for Alec?
Kelly Reno’s riding experience is evident in the movie, and overall he is very natural considering that this was his first role. He has a face made for the movies.
The scenes between Alec and Mickey Rooney feel so natural and spontaneous that they almost seem improvised, and clearly they brought out the best in each other as actors. Teri Garr, who perfected the role of the conflicted working mom in Mr. Mom (see my review here), brings to life a tender and concerned newly-widowed mother who now must care for her son and his most unusual new pet, a wild stallion.
Reel Mama’s rating: The film will be best appreciated by kids age 8 and up, but younger kids might get into it as well. Scenes that might be too intense for the youngest viewers include the horse tied up and one of the wranglers cracking a whip in the beginning, the harrowing event of the boat sinking, and when Alec has an alarming encounter with a snake on the island. The film might be a tad slow for lovers of Sponge Bob, but those who stick with this film will be richly rewarded.