Carroll Ballard’s THE BLACK STALLION (1979) is one of those beautiful films that is peppered with so many sweet little moments that it stays with you. With executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, a terrific cast and breath-taking scenes, this film results in a memorable experience of a simple yet heart-warming tale.
On a father (Hoyt Axton) and son (Kelly Reno as Alec Ramsey) journey on a ship, the father stays up late to play cards with other gambling passengers. While exploring the ship, the boy discovers a wild desert horse as black as night. The animal is tied up and treated poorly by its cruel keeper and he secretly shows the horse some kindness. After a long night of gambling, the dad brings his son a gift from his winnings of a tiny sculpted brass horse. He shares an animated story of a wild stallion of Alexander the Great, with “fire in his eyes and smoke coming out of his nose.” The boy is charmed by his father’s tall tale and cherises his new keepsake.
In the middle of the night, the two are woken up abruptly to a sideways topsy-turvy ship sinking. In the chaos of these events, The father tries to keep the son life-jacketed and safe while attempting to save others. Ultimately, the two become separated and the boy and the horse are flung overboard in a frenetic chase to survival. The young Alec wakes up on a beach in daylight in soaked pajamas with nothing but his pocket knife and his toy brass horse in tact.
After acclimating to his new life of solititude and a thirst for survival, he discovers he is not quite completely alone. He finds the black stallion all tangled in ropes and struggling in a pit of rocks on his shared deserted island. He and his pocket knife cautiously approach the wild beast and break him free. His only potential for companionship has just bolted.
This is followed up by some very sweet scenes of connection. In one instance, the boy is woken up to a cobra inches from his face, and “Black” the wild stallion comes out of nowhere to stamp out the asp enemy. In another, the boy attempts to make friends with his only island esquine companion with some nutritional vegetative offerings. After many beautiful scenes of music-meets-cinematography art, the two bond both on the land and in the Italian seaside, just as the boy is discovered by a rescue team of Italian fishermen who soon realize that this boy is inseparable from his friend “Black”.
Back home in the states, the boy is an awkward hero. His story of survival is mythical. The boy’s mother (nicely and subduely portrayed by Teri Garr) is simply thrilled and comforted to have her son at home. But he just wants to be with his esquine friend, Black. Their new surrondings are not exactly like the freedoms and spoils of the deserted island. They both feel at of place and caged in. Due to a disruptive milkman, Black escapes one early morning. The boy goes on an exhausting goose-chase across town and into the countryside looking for his beloved friend, Black. A man with a horse driven carraige with a white horse is named Napolean (Napolean was portrayed by “Junior”, who was the same horse used in National Lampoon’s ANIMAL HOUSE as Neidermeyer’s Trooper) who wears a hat fitting of his name- finds the desperate boy and he tells him where he can find his hooved friend.
True to his word, the boy finds Black on a farm on the outskirts of town. Black has found a farm that belongs to a former prize-winning jockey and horse-racing champion, Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney). Soon, Henry and Alec become friends as Henry agrees to let Black stay at his farm, instead of the boy’s cramped backyard in the suburbs. It’s not long before the boy has persuaded Henry to dust off his champion ribbons and trophies to train him to ride Black to race. And before you know it, Black has been secretly entered into a championship race.
As you can imagine, the ending is a nail-biting race against all-odds. In the end, Black is a winner and all end up okay. But the flashbacks to the days of boy-and-horse-companion rides of freedom on the beach and the race in the city are merged. The melding of the melancholic parallels bring me to tears every time. Mind you, I’m NOT one of the women who spent her girly years playing with a Breyer horse in her Holly Hobby canopy bed. Although MANY of my friends did. But there is definitely something about this film that tugs at the nostalgic heart-strings. For many reasons…
The cinematography is breath-taking. Especially the scenes on the beach. Kelly Reno’s performance is honest yet brave as the little boy is SO good, so honest, so authentic, SO sweetly freckled. (In real life he was plucked from of his ranching home in Colorado out of the many auditions due to his natural riding abilities, then just as he upgraded to a better talent manager as he was graduating from high school, he was tragically injured in a semi-truck accident and later became a semi truck driver himself instead of his promising acting career.)
The musical score and sound editing chosen to accompany these beautiful scenes was surperbly spot-on. (Won an Academy Award, Special Achievement for Sound Editing, won Golden Globe for Best Original Score- Carmine Coppolla,.. plus many more!) The relationship between Kelly Reno and Mickey Rooney is wonderful. (Rooney was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.) A formation of father and son connection that again is incredibly sweet yet real. I truly think Rooney’s performance is indicative of the unlimited talent he possessed. The guy did it all!
This post is part of the @getTV Mickey Rooney Blogathon hosted by Once Upon A Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club taking place throughout the month of September. Please visit the @getTV schedule for details on Rooney screenings throughout the month and any of the host sites for complete list of entries.