Judge Jim Thomas isn't horsing around.
Our review of The Black Stallion (1979) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published July 22nd, 2015, is also available.
From the moment he first saw the stallion, he knew that it would either destroy him, or carry him where no one had ever been before…
Peabody here. Today we're taking the Way Back Machine to 1997, when the Digital Video Disc was introduced. DVD players cost $1,000, and the DVDs themselves were pricey as well. In selecting titles to entice consumers to the new format, the studios wanted films that would showcase the new format. One of the first MGM titles was Carroll Ballard's 1979 version of Walter Farley's children's classic, The Black Stallion. The evidence—primarily the thirteen-year-old transfer—shows that while the film itself is a stunning visual achievement, the technical aspects of the disc do not do those visuals justice.
Facts of the Case
Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno, The Black Stallion Returns), is traveling by ship with his father (Hoyt Axton, Gremlins) off the coast of Africa. Wandering the ship one day, he follows some odd sounds, to discover some men struggling to move a magnificent black Arabian into a small cargo hold. That night, in the midst of a storm, fire breaks out aboard ship. Panicked, the stallion breaks loose and leaps into the water.
Alec is knocked overboard in the rush of people, almost drowning in the shadow of the sinking ship, before he catches sight of the horse. He manages to grab one of the ropes trailing from the horse's harness, and the horse swims them both to a nearby island. Alec wakes up alone on a deserted beach, and begins the business of staying alive. Hearing an odd noise, he discovers the stallion, its restraining ropes tangled up in rocks, struggling to escape. Carefully, tentatively, Alec moves close enough to the horse to cut it free; shaking off its harness, the stallion gallops down the beach and out of sight. Alec's act of compassion leaves its mark, and the two gradually form a magical bond. When a passing fishing boat rescues him, Alec insists that "Black" be rescued as well. He initially keeps the horse in his backyard, to the amusement and consternation of his mother (Teri Garr, Tootsie), until a garbage man spooks the horse and it runs off. Alec tracks the horse down to the farm of Henry (Mickey Rooney, Erik the Viking), a retired jockey who can see the greatness within the horse. While helping Alec train Black, he also works behind the scenes to bring off a challenge match that would pit Black against the two best racehorses of the day.
You can probably see where this one is going.
It isn't hard to understand why MGM picked this movie as one of its earliest DVD releases—visually, this is a breathtaking movie, one that in no way looks like a director's debut feature. The plot itself is not particularly original, but Ballard avoids the contempt of familiarity by adding a measured layer of naturalism to the narrative. Riding the stallion is never about breaking him or bending him to Alec's will; it's a matter of mutual acceptance. Ballard, who as the second unit director on Star Wars shot most of the desert exteriors, creates a series of spectacular images, breathtaking in a good way and in a bad way: Alec's encounter with an angry cobra. Ballard generates palpable tension using tight closeups of the cobra as it approaches, tight closeups of Alec's hand twitching as he sleeps, and keeping the camera low so that when Alec awakens, we see the serpent as Alec sees it. Even though I knew nothing was going to happen to Alec, the scene was unnerving on a visceral, primal level.
Sound editor Alan Splet picked up a Special Achievement Oscar for his work here, and it's easy to hear why. When Alec encounters the tangled horse on the beach, it is squealing, screaming. Splet modifies the sound just a bit, modulating some of the frequencies and punching up the volume a bit. The result is at once recognizable and completely alien. The sounds and images transform the landscape; Alec isn't on any field trip.
This really isn't an actor's movie; Kelly Reno acquits himself well in the first half of the movie, but has more problems interacting with people. Fortunately, most of that interaction is with Mickey Rooney; he grounds the film with an understated performance that earned an Oscar nomination. Teri Garr has a (very) small role as Alec's mother; Hoyt Axton doesn't last long, but his scenes count, particularly his delivery of the story of Alexander the Great's horse Bucephalus, a story that fires Alec's imagination and provides a context that keeps the two halves of the movie more or less connected.
The only extra is the theatrical trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Watching this disc makes you appreciate just how far remastering has come in the last thirteen years. The master was made from a damaged print, and nicks and scratches abound, along with considerable grain. In addition, colors are washed out and fuzzy, particularly in the island sequences. There are also compression artifacts, borne of including both the widescreen and full-frame versions on one disc.
Sound fares somewhat better. The stereo track is clear, and you don't have any trouble understanding dialogue, but the artificiality of Splet's sound editing is pronounced; you can just tell that the sound levels have been tinkered with. Here again, a proper remastering, particularly into a strong surround track, would transform the movie.
Moving to the film itself, the relatively thin narrative creaks under the weight of Ballard's imagery. The lavish detail spent on Alec's growing relationship with the stallion gets to the point that at times you can't help but wonder if you're watching Equus: The Prequel, and 118 minutes is really too long for a tale such as this. Moreover, no amount of imagery can overcome the weakness of the ending, both predictable and abrupt.
All that said, though, my nine-year-old daughter was absolutely enthralled.
Finally, I am at a loss as to why MGM did not use the original poster art for the cover, instead using the fairly standard clichéd image of a rearing stallion.
The poster art is exotic, evocative, it's borderline iconic—hell, when I saw the title on our list, the poster art sprang to mind, and I had never seen the movie.
The Black Stallion, though more than just a little bit predictable, remains a magical telling of a classic children's tale.
Dear Criterion. Get this title and work your magic. I'm begging you.
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