I had remembered The Black Stallion as among the films I had seen in as a kid in movie theaters, but while watching it today I realized that probably what I remembered seeing was its sequel, The Black Stallion Returns. I would like to believe that I if I had seen the first film in the theater, I would have had a clear memory, since it made such a strong impression on me today.
I believe that 1979 was the last great year of the renaissance in American film that started with Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and continued until the video tape revolution stole audiences away from theaters. Even teen films, which are an innately silly genre, were good in 1979, with Breaking Away, and to a lesser extent Meatballs, being enduring examples of good coming-of-age flicks. Two kids movies from that year, The Muppet Movie and The Black Stallion, obviously had children as their target audience, but can be enjoyed by adults, and are intelligent in ways that movies for kids seldom dare to be today.
When 12-year-old Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and a wild Arabian stallion wash up on a desert island as the only survivors of a ship wreck, there is not a single line of dialogue for 32 minutes, until they are rescued by a Portugese fishing boat. The whole island sequence is a gorgeously filmed example of visual cinema, and works to spark the imagination of child viewers. But it also moves at a leisurely pace that is hard to imagine a studio executive of today giving the green light to. After his rescue and return to suburban America, where his horse initially lives in the back yard, his relationship with his mom (Teri Garr) is handled in a similarly thoughtful way. When Alec tells her that he wants to ride in a highly-publicized race despite her worries, her 30-second pause while thinking it over, glancing out the window and remembering the man in her life she has already lost—her husband—and thinking about the other who may get killed in the race—her son—it is a moment of masterful acting the likes of which you rarely see today, and is another subtle touch that would probably be thrown out by producers while dumbing things down for the kiddies, probably insisting on a scene of the mom screaming out her disapproval. Mickey Rooney, who I have never really been able to stand in any stage of his long career, shows up and is actually good. The story then turns into something of a buddy pic, but is still one told in an imaginative way. There are no upbeat montages to show them going through the rigors of preparing for the big race, but there are long takes of them training out in open fields, and natural, slow paced conversations between the boy and Rooney, and his farmhand Snoe (played by Clarence Muse, who coincidentally was in another horse film I recently saw, Broadway Bill).
Perhaps the reason that The Black Stallion has the feel of a classic tale is that it was based on a series of adventure stories for boys first published in the early 1940s, and the film is set in 1946. The optimism of post-War America seeps into the film. Director Carroll Ballard, who was college buddies with executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, grew up in the 1940s, and it is easy to imagine him reading adventure books, especially as he went on to direct other nature-themed films such as Never Cry Wolf. He is able to capture the spirit of those adventure books, the spirit of a boy dreaming of going out in the world on his own, and proving himself amongst men.