Monday, January 4, 2016

#765: The Black Stallion

(Carroll Ballard, 1979)

The Black Stallion seems like a surprising choice for Criterion on paper. Made in the late 70s by Coppola's short-lived studio and a little-known (but underrated) director, the film is a fairy tale for the 8-12 set. Yet even a cursory viewing makes it clear why this release has a wacky C in the corner of its cover: this is a serious work of cinema, and one of the most beautiful films in the collection.

The story of The Black Stallion is divided into two halves, and while the protagonist of the film is a young boy, the stars of their respective halves are the stallion himself and Mickey Rooney as the trainer. The first half, which opens on a ship off the coast of Africa before a shipwreck leaves the young boy alone on an island with the horse, features a powerful story from the boy's father, a terrifying disaster sequence, and finally a mostly wordless sequence on the beach where the boy and the horse become inseparable. This sequence is obviously the great challenge of the film, and Ballard and his cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel (Zooey's and Emily's father), rise to the occasion. Although two scenes jump as particularly memorable - the horse saving Alec from a snake and Alec finally mounting the horse - it's the rest of the action that is most impressive because they manage to make small moments and stunning scenery engrossing without a flashy style.

The second half of the film turns into a more typical underdog sports film, which makes it less appealing. It's saved from cliche by Rooney's performance and Ballard's determination to do things different and take his time with the characters. The drama is focused intently on Alec and his horse, leaving little room for the typical melodrama that we're accustomed to in this sort of movie. Furthermore, the visuals stay beautiful and inventive - I love the way the final race is shot and edited, moving back and forth from long side shots where Black appears to be gliding through space and over the shoulder shots moving at breakneck speed with thundering hooves underneath. I'm glad I got to see this on blu-ray, as Criterion's transfer is absolutely stunning, particularly in moments of quick movement like the final race (though I love the colors of the film throughout). There's not much in the way of suspense or significant insight in these final scenes of the film, but the gentle way the story has been told leaves the viewer satisfied anyway.

It doesn't take more than a quick glance at Ballard's IMDB page to see that his career has been a challenging one. With just six films spread over four decades, Ballard saw little commercial success and paid the price with irregular work and a pigeonholing of his talents as a children's movie director with an emphasis on animal stories. The interview Scott Foundas does with Ballard on the Criterion disc is interesting and informative, but Ballard definitely comes off as a little bitter about the way his career went. The three child/animal films that make up half of his feature output (this, Fly Away Home, and Duma) are all superior kids films that depict relationships with animals that are virtually the exact opposite of the anthropomorphic creatures that make up today's "family" film landscape. Ballard treats Duma and Black with a dignity and respect in their films that is the equal of his treatment of his young viewers - these are not movies meant to condescend or cater to adolescents, but are instead challenging, mystical, and wondrous depictions of youth and man's place in nature. This is not an easy thing to do and it is not encouraged in today's family landscape, where movies need to appeal to viewers from 5 to 95. It's what makes Ballard's films so valuable. The Black Stallion is a particularly beautiful example in this regard.

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