blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Black Stallion (1979, Carroll Ballard)

The Black Stallion is two separate, subsequent narratives. The filmmakers utilize two different but related styles for them. The first narrative, with 1940s tween Kelly Reno, shipwrecked on a desert island off the coast of North Africa with a wild Arabian stallion. The second is after Reno’s rescue when he and the stallion have to adjust to “real” life back home in the United States. That adjustment will lead to ex-jockey and current unsuccessful farmer Mickey Rooney taking an interest in Reno and the horse, who don’t do well in town.

The first narrative takes just under an hour, starting with Reno and dad Hoyt Aston on the ship, with a bored Reno discovering the horse onboard. There’s not a lot of dialogue, with director Ballard immediately establishing the film’s distinct narrative distance to protagonist Reno. The first part of Stallion’s more visual, the second part’s more audial, but Ballard and his crew maintain techniques throughout, including this deliberate angle on Reno. Ballard focuses on Reno’s experience of events but without showing his reaction to those events. Sometimes the film will catch Reno as he reacts; it just does so while the reaction’s already in progress. The film gives Reno his privacy.

The film’s got almost a half hour without any dialogue. Reno makes some noises at the horse in attempts to ingratiate himself—to limited success—but otherwise, most of the desert island sequence is no diegetic sound, just Carmine Coppola’s score. Coppola’s score is often ethereal, moving between styles, then focusing in for exact dramatic effect. The Black Stallion is a technically precise film. It’s exquisite too, but the precision is on a whole other level. Ballard, cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, editor Robert Dalva, and composer Coppola create these sublime sequences, each distinct but building off one another. The film tracks this relationship between Reno and the horse, their developing friendship and companionship, and gives them space to separately experience their desert island plight. The only word for it is divine.

And it takes Stallion until the film’s third act (and of the second narrative) to get back to that level. The second part is technically superb and quite charming (Rooney’s adorable, Teri Garr’s extremely sympathetic as Reno’s mom, and the period production design is excellent), but it’s not the first part. It’s not about Reno and the horse as pals anymore; it’s about Reno trying to figure out how to have an Arabian stallion somewhere in Rockwellian America. Rooney and the potential of racing glory give Reno some idea, though.

Since the film started on the ship, the film never establishes Reno before his exciting and tragic adventure. He’s always quiet and reflective, even on the boat, so one can assume he’s not less exuberant than before, but once he’s home, it’s still all about the horse. They’ve just lost the context for their friendship, with Rooney becoming—if not a surrogate dad—then at least a male role model for Reno. Rooney can understand some of Reno’s relationship with the horse. Despite the intense dangers the two experienced, Reno still has boyish dreams for him and his horse.

Good thing he lives in a place where male wish-fulfillment is a cornerstone of the culture because he’ll get his chance. Though the film will let Reno verbalize his dreams, the closest is when he breaks down and tells mom Garr about his experiences, which the film showed without sharing his internal experience. It did an excellent job of conveying that experience visually, but it’s not until much later Reno finally gets to talk about them.

The film’s terse with all its actors; Axton gets a great, staring straight in the camera (Reno’s perspective) monologue at the beginning, but he doesn’t talk much otherwise. It takes until the end of the second act for Reno to get his big moment. Garr gets hers in the same scene. Both Rooney and Clarence Muse have already had their big scenes, despite coming in after Garr. And big comes with an asterisk. They’re just longer passages of dialogue, maybe monologues. Ballard’s not interested in listening to people talk, instead showing how they act and interact.

The sound editing’s the thing in the second part. The sound of the horse running, hooves now on grass and pavement. Although there were lengthy horse-riding sequences in the first part, those sequences all had Coppola’s music accompanying them, not the actual sound. Ballard and the sound editors (Todd Boekelheide, Richard Burrow, Diana Pellegrini, and Stephen Stept) very deliberately refine the sound through the second part until the exceptional finale, when the sound becomes the most important technical. Albeit amid the exceptional other technicals. Stallion’s finale is gorgeous filmmaking. The photography, the editing, the directing, all stellar. And then the sound is even more impressive.

It’s transcendent, and when Stallion ties the epical (if stylishly lyrical) second part back to that lyrical, divine first part.

The film has several phenomenal sequences (in addition to the finale). Heck, the end credits are a remarkable flashback sequence. But most of the scenes on the island are fantastic, particularly the underwater dance and riding sequence. Reno chasing the horse through town is also great. But, again, nothing compares to the finale. Well, some of the island stuff, but it literally compares, not figuratively.

The Black Stallion is exquisite and masterful, occasionally divine. It’s a magnificent film.

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