With the exception of the hushed pitter-patter of feet pressing into earth, the occasional low murmur of rather inconsequential dialogue, and a varied score that often pares down to just the soft plucking of a harp, Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion might as well be a silent film. A curious artifact from the unstable transitional period as the New Hollywood Cinema ceded to the early blockbuster era, the film owes the storybook simplicity of its visuals to the crystalline children’s films of Albert Lamorisse—most specifically 1952’s White Mane, with which it shares the subject of a boy-horse friendship. The breakout effort from now-ubiquitous cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, The Black Stallion is a relentless procession of lavishly framed images, each one a marvel of compact visual storytelling. Only in its latter half, when Ballard accommodates a plot progression involving a Kentucky horse trainer, does the film exercise conventional mise-en-scène with shot/reverse-shot patterns unifying a dramatic space. Before that, and especially in its lengthy sequence of courtship between the boy, Alec (Kelly Reno), and the stallion, referred to simply as “Black,” Ballard affords each deep-focus shot a concise descriptive power unto itself. The sound could be muted without any loss of comprehension.
Certainly, this sort of fawning directorial strategy tends to draw accusations of empty prettifying, as though the narrative could have been rendered as a coffee-table book without taking a hit in aesthetic impact. And, truthfully, a handful of moments in The Black Stallion do feel catatonically picturesque; sometimes when Ballard cuts away to one of Deschanel’s many flawlessly framed but fairly anonymous sunset shots, there’s a sense of dramatic momentum stopping dead for oohing and aahing. But more often, the pictorial flair functions as an expression of a naïve, enraptured childlike perspective. It’s clear after the string of fantastic events that incite the plot that we’re well within the fairy-tale logic of a young boy: The ship Alec is traveling on with his father and a bunch of brutish gamblers is tragically set aflame, and in one of those improbable turns of events that happen only in movies and dreams, he and the stallion wash up to shore alive.
Ballard creates an amorphous rhythm with the use of slow dissolves from scene to scene, and responds to the emotional fluctuations in his central character through minute shifts in editing tempo and musical cadence (the eclectic score by Carmine Coppola straddling both Wagnerian bombast and minimalist tribal sounds). Just as the high points of Alec’s journey are communicated through the sympathetic filmmaking as triumphant exaltations (when he learns to ride Black on the gleaming shores of Italy, for instance, the moment is captured as a series of breezy traveling shots at various glorifying angles), the low points register as correspondingly nightmarish. Shot via a rare detour into handheld camerawork, the smoky, infernal chaos of the shipwreck vignette prefigures the horrors of Titanic without any of the protracted schmaltz.
The notion implied at the beginning of the film through visual shorthand—claustrophobic shots of grubby hands exchanging poker chips, fleeting glimpses of the stallion being whipped by its owners—is that Alec is a boy in desperate need of a liberation from the materialistic impulses of the adult world. The shift from sea to land ultimately attains its rush of excitement because of this release. It’s more than a little perplexing, then, when the narrative’s ultimate course of action—and Alec’s route to self-actualization—turns out to be through the world of competitive horse racing, which culminates in a trip to Fort Erie Racetrack in Canada. After Black escapes the suburbs of Oregon, Alec, at this point operating outside the usual limitations and restrictions of childhood, discovers him in a barn in the countryside. The man who’s claimed him (played in a gracefully subdued comeback performance by Mickey Rooney) happens to be a retired horse trainer longing for a reason to return to the sport, so he agrees to groom both Alec and Black for competition.
The Black Stallion continues as an almost documentary-like paean to the craft of commercial equestrian racing, complete with remarkably visceral high-speed footage that predicts some of the imagery achieved by Michael Mann in his short-lived miniseries Luck. It’s a story progression that puzzles considering Ballard’s filmmaking career would go on to become one of total investment in the transformative power of wild animals (Never Cry Wolf, Fly Away Home, and Duma all evoke this fascination). That the final destination of the stallion after enduring the harsh treatment of its proprietors aboard the restricting quarters of a steamship is a cycle of dirt surrounded by human onlookers eager to snag a profit off its physical gifts seems a sad evolution indeed. Where White Mane implicitly protested from start to finish against the domestication and objectification of wild animals, The Black Stallion’s subtle political undertow breaks down halfway through. Still, Ballard’s delicate touch and obvious affection for the rural ways of life he depicts keeps the film light on its feet; it’s more a dreamy evocation of a child reclaiming a hold on his life after a family tragedy than it is a film particularly concerned with the clean arc of its narrative. Because of this, what could have been a frustratingly conservative bait and switch remains something of a wide-eyed, awestruck portrait of pastoral America in the ’40s.
The Black Stallion opens on the steamship at dusk, where the deep blue of the sky and water beautifully complements the warm glow of the ship’s lights, and only gets more astonishing to look at as it continues. Carroll Ballard and Caleb Deschanel shot largely in natural light or with minimal artificial sources, and Criterion’s 4K transfer honors the subtle gradations of illumination that occur at different times of day. Some scenes have an evenly exposed mid-afternoon vibrancy that brightens up the entire living room while others are dimmed right to the threshold of detail, such as a hazy overcast shot of Alec resting on the side of a street in the early morning hours. Alan Splet, otherwise known for his haunting work on Eraserhead, was the sonic architect on the film, and he often lets dialogue get swallowed up with the rest of the atmosphere sounds, which might seem like a technical blemish were it not for how effectively it reflects the interiority of Alec’s experience. In general, The Black Stallion’s sound mix is especially dynamic according to modern standards, and it’s a credit to the remastering job that levels haven’t been disingenuously evened out.
Criterion has contextualized The Black Stallion with what truly qualifies as a feast of extras: a video conversation between Ballard and Scott Foundas, a talking-head remembrance by Deschanel, a discussion with on set photographer Mary Ellen Mark, a glowing essay by Michael Sragow ("Ballard achieves moments of pure pagan joy," he raves), and a collection of five 16mm shorts Ballard independently produced before getting his break with The Black Stallion. These low-budget productions offer tantalizing glimpses of Ballard’s visual prowess as well as early evidence of his seemingly preternatural skill working with animals on screen. All of the supplements shed light to varying degrees on how an "art-house children’s film" (per the movie’s skeptical execs) got made in Hollywood and became a success in the late ’70s, but the chat between Ballard and Foundas is the highlight in this regard. At one point, Ballard notes how he took objection to the second half of the script picked by executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, finding it "problematic" and too close to a "Leave It to Beaver kinda thing," comments that partly explain The Black Stallion’s unexpected narrative trajectory.
For some, The Black Stallion will be a fascinating discovery from an era in American cinema that continues to yield new treasures, and for those already familiar with Ballard’s entrancing vision, Criterion’s generous helping of supplements goes a long way in contextualizing the achievement.