#98) The Black Stallion (1979)
OR “The Dark Horse” (Come on, it’s right there!)
Directed by Carroll Ballard
Written by Melissa Mathison & Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff. Based on the novel by Walter Farley.
Class of 2002
The Plot: While traveling by ship along the coast of North Africa, Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) meets and befriends an Arabian Stallion named Black (Cass Ole). After the ship sinks, Alec and Black wash ashore on a deserted island and form a bond that helps them survive. Once rescued, Alec returns home to his mother (Teri Garr) with Black in tow. Too wild for their small town, Black finds refuge on the farm of Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) a former jockey who is motivated to come out of retirement to train Black as a racehorse. Things look promising, but can Alec tame Black in time for the big race?
Why It Matters: The NFR mentions the film’s eventual release thanks to Francis Ford Coppola stepping in, as well as its Oscar nominations. There’s also a very sweet essay by writer Keith Phipps, who praises the film’s beauty while also managing to make a “C.H.O.M.P.S.” reference.
But Does It Really?: If nothing else, “The Black Stallion” set the template for kids-and-animal films for the next two decades. Everyone else tries to be this movie, but there’s only one “Black Stallion”. It doesn’t talk down to kids or try to give the animal some magical quality. The film shows that children and animals have their own natural way of living, and by listening to each other they can not only coexist, but also give Mickey Rooney a much-needed comeback vehicle.
Shout Outs: A photograph of Henry in his jockey days is actually young Mickey Rooney from “National Velvet”.
Everybody Gets One: Director Carroll Ballard, lead actor Kelly Reno, and almost the entire supporting cast, most notably folk singer Hoyt “Mitchell” Axton.
Wow, That’s Dated: Actually, this film fares okay in the dated department. The only giveaway that this is a ‘70s film is its quiet, art film style. You don’t see any kid movies doing that nowadays I’ll tell you that.
Title Track: Snoe mentions a “black stallion” once about halfway through the film.
Seriously, Oscars?: “The Black Stallion” received only two nominations, but did receive an honorary Oscar for Alan Splet’s sound editing (while the category of Best Sound Editing did exist back in 1979, there weren’t enough eligible films that year, so “Black Stallion” won an Honorary Award instead). Robert Dalva’s editing lost to the flashier work of “All That Jazz”, and Mickey Rooney’s sentimental Supporting Actor nomination lost to the even more sentimental Melvyn Douglas for “Being There”. “The Black Stallion” was not nominated for Best Picture, nor for Carmine Coppola’s score or Caleb Deschanel’s cinematography.
- Speaking of Caleb Deschanel: In addition to being a (still very active) five-time Oscar nominated cinematographer, Caleb is the father of actors Emily & Zooey Deschanel. Now that’s one creative family.
- Man, between Kelly Reno, Justin Henry and Ricky Schroder, 1979 was the year of the child actor.
- A fun game to play while watching this film; Connect-the-Dots with Kelly Reno’s Freckles!
- I didn’t realize the first half of this film is basically “Cast Away”. The scene where Tom Hanks tries to ride Wilson just doesn’t pack the same punch.
- Jesus, that cobra is booking it. Damn nature, you scary!
- Nope, didn’t see the plate of glass between Alec and the cobra.
- The montage of Alec riding Black along the beach is just awe-inspiring. But if he’s not careful they’re going to run into those “Chariots of Fire” guys coming the other way.
- I bet when Alec came back to school, his “How I Spent My Summer Vacation” essay was the best.
- Mom seems sort of nonplussed by all of this. Dad’s dead, my kid vanished and now there’s an untamed horse in the backyard. Cool, cool.
- Clarence Muse, seen here as Snoe, was one of the first black stars of the sound era. This film was released just four days after his death.
- Snoe’s horse Napoleon also played Niedermeyer’s horse Trooper in “Animal House”. That’s right, one of the horses in this film has more NFR credits than the director.
- This is Mickey Rooney in what I call his “Lampie” era. It’s also telling when the best child actor in your film is 59 years old.
- Cass Ole gives the best side-eye. But then again, that’s all a horse can really give you I suppose.
- Why is Alec dressed like a Mexican wrestler for the race?
- Stick around during the end credits for a rare double rainbow. What does it mean!?
- No AHA disclaimer in the credits, but by all accounts those horses were not harmed during filming.
- Despite the original book having 900 sequels, “The Black Stallion” only had one follow-up film; 1983’s “The Black Stallion Returns”, which follows its source novel pretty faithfully.
- Early ‘90s Family Channel viewers may recall “The Adventures of the Black Stallion” a TV series with Mickey Rooney reprising his role of Henry. Although it’s never explained why it’s the ‘90s all of a sudden. Is Henry immortal?
- “The Black Stallion” joined the early ‘00s prequel craze with “The Young Black Stallion”, which featured Black finding mystic artifacts and bumping into historical figures, I guess.
- Director Carroll Ballard has only directed a handful of films, but almost all of them are about the bond between humans and animals, most notably “Never Cry Wolf” and “Fly Away Home”.
- In a misguided attempt to keep two film franchises alive, The Black Stallion fought Rocky “The Italian Stallion” Balboa in “Rocky V”. Cass Ole called being in that film “one of my deepest regrets”.