An Examination: The Black Stallion (1979), The Black Stallion Returns (1983)

In my family, we all have our passions / obsessions. With my Dad, it’s Music. With my sister, it’s Health and Fitness and with my Mom…it’s Horses. For pretty much my entire existence, horses have played a key part, where my mother is concerned. The woman knows her shit and it’s impressive. While I was a kid, there was a significant period of time where horses were an everyday thing. Due to this particular interest and Mom’s deep connection to it…some of my earliest movie memories revolve around those majestic animals. The three that immediately spring to mind are ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1982) and these two films, most notably the first one.
It’s been my intention for a good while now to sit down and take the two ‘Black Stallion’ films in again, in one sitting for the first time in..well…ever, and then compare. I haven’t seen either movie in, at least, 20+ years and then…I’ve only seen the first one a couple times while the sequel gets a solid ‘Single Viewing EVER’. So, after having recently damaged my mind with a “Why the hell not?!” ‘Rambo’ marathon / ‘examination’, I thought that it was Prime Time to get this one on the go.

The Black Stallion (1979)

In a nutshell, this film is exquisite. Right from the gorgeously-shot Title Card (the camera slowly zooms in on wind-swept dunes, to reveal the dark shape of a small horse figurine being swept clear of the blowing sand) straight through to the End Credits of bitter-sweet footage of a boy and his horse. Simply amazing cinematography.
‘Off the coast of North Africa-1946’ is how this film begins. We start the journey on the upper deck of a rusty freighter as it pushes through the wind and spray. On the deck is a young American boy named ‘Alec Ramsey’ (Kelly Reno)…and he’s bored. As he explores the heaving boat, he comes across a group of rough-looking North Africans as they try to violently wrangle a massive black Arabian stallion into a cramped stall…and becomes instantly curious. ‘Alec’ later goes back and manages to feed the panicked horse a number of sugar cubes before the unscrupulous dick who was in charge of the cruel treatment catches him and twists his ear in punishment. Later, ‘Alec’ and his goofy gambler father (Hoyt Axton) divvy up the latest poker winnings and ‘Alec’ is given his first jack-knife and the small horse-shaped figurine, which his Father tells him represents ‘Bucephalus’, the legendary steed of Alexander The Great. Shortly after this, a fire inexplicably breaks out on the ship and the vessel plunges into the sea (in a masterfully shot sequence of intense action and peril). By misfortune or good luck, ‘Alec’ is accidentally tossed over-board moments after having cut the trapped horse free of it’s bonds. They find each other among the dark waves and…’Alec’ wakes up in the surf of a small deserted island. After figuring out ways to fight for survival, he finds the still-alive horse caught up in it’s tangle of ropes and in mortal danger. Once again, ‘Alec’ rescues the stallion…and their friendship begins. Over the 3 months that ‘Alec’ is stranded, he and ‘The Black’ form a symbiotic relationship that keeps them both alive. A Portuguese fishing boat happens upon the island and the two castaways are soon rescued. Once back in the state of New York, ‘Alec’ and his mother (Terri Garr) find that keeping a full-grown Arabian stallion in a suburban backyard just won’t cut it and in short order, spooked by a garbageman, ‘The Black’ takes off at high speed. ‘Alec’ gives chase and, after about a full day and nights worth of searching and running, eventually finds the horse in the care of ‘Henry’ (Mickey Rooney), a former jockey-turned-failed dairy farmer. ‘Henry’ and ‘Alec’ soon become fast friends and eventually plot to get the powerful beast onto the professional race circuit.
This film is absolutely gorgeous. Some serious care went into the cinematography and given that Francis Ford Coppola (‘The Godfather Trilogy’) held the title of Executive Producer, through his Zoetrope Studios label, it’s really no surprise. Coming back to this film after about a quarter of a century, it’s impressive to note just how ahead of it’s time it was in it’s visual presentation. 1979 was a bit of a Game Changer, as visual styles went. The fabric of cinema was altered with the visual knock-out punches of ‘Alien’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’, and now I have to admit that THIS film deserves to stand beside those two classics as a near-timeless example of what an epic movie SHOULD look like.  Director Carroll Ballard (‘Never Cry Wolf’) seems to have embraced the use of wide-screen telephoto lens and did so beautifully. I have to wonder if directors like Ridley and Tony Scott, and Adrian Lyne (directors renowned for mastering that technique) took notes from this film and employed them in some of their future features (the Horse Track Robbery sequence from ‘Beverly Hills Cop 2’ comes to mind). It sure wouldn’t surprise me. To anyone interested in film technique or beautiful-looking compositions and ‘scale’, this film NEEDS to be seen. It’s THAT impressive.
The acting is quite good, especially from Kelly Reno as ‘Alec’. Having never acted prior to this, he pulls off an impressive feat of breathing convincing and interesting Life into the character. One aspect that goes a long way to service the story is the fact that Reno was the son of cattle ranchers from Colorado and had been riding horses since before he could walk. His skill and comfort with the animals is clearly evident onscreen and the majority of the fast-paced riding sequences show him in the saddle. In some respects, he reminded me of Henry Thomas (‘Elliot’ from ‘E.T.), but unlike Thomas, Reno retired from acting after a stint on Spielberg’s ‘Amazing Tales’ TV show, in 1985. Supporting him was veteran actor Mickey Rooney (‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s) as ‘Henry’ and he’s great. ‘Henry’ feels like a real person and this is clearly a testament to Rooney’s LONG history as a successful actor and his comfort with the medium. His chemistry with Reno was solid and the two of them make for a likable pair of characters. The other character of any real significance is ‘Alec’s Mother’, as played by Terri Garr (‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’). She acts as a bit of a ‘ground’ for ‘Alec’ and tries to exert her motherly will on the determined boy, but in the end supports him in his quest to race ‘The Black’. It does have to be mentioned that the horse that largely portrayed the title character, going by the name of ‘Cass Ole’, was an amazingly well-trained animal and they were able to get a genuine performance out of the Arabian stallion.
The Music for ‘The Black Stallion’ is masterful, as should be expected in the hands of Francis Ford Coppola’s father Carmine Coppola (‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Godfather Trilogy’). There’s a slick Middle Eastern sound given to the first half of the film, for everything taking place off the coast of North Africa. Once “Alec’ returns to the U.S., the score takes on a decidedly subtle Western twang, that fits the visuals like a glove. The marriage of Picture and Sound here is terrifically well-calculated and executed.
If I had drag a complaint out of all this gushing, I would have to say that The 2nd Act could’ve used a little more ‘meat’. It’s a simple story (Boy and Horse become castaways, survive, are rescued, come home, race The Big Race, End) and I personally feel that more time dedicated to ‘Alec’s training and his dynamic with ‘Henry’ could’ve made this great film even greater. As it is though, I’ll happily take what’s there.
All in all, I love this film and can see myself adding it to my Bluray collection in the near future. It’s visual flourish is just THAT strong and that alone guarantees it a home among my other ‘choice’ titles. I recommend ‘The Black Stallion’ to ANYONE who appreciates well-crafted and genuinely exciting adventure films that are suitable for the entire family. In fact, kids today SHOULD see this movie, to help them appreciate what real, non-CGI enhanced skill behind The Page and The Camera looks like. It also ends on a pleasantly triumphant ‘high-note’ and leaves the viewer nearly breathless from the climactic race sequence and Alec’s bold defiance of The Odds. And that ain’t a bad thing!

The Black Stallion Returns (1983)

I was a little worried about this one, going in after SO many years (aside from a race in the desert, I remembered NOTHING about this sequel). Not knowing the story behind it’s creation (apparently it’s also based on a novel, like the first one), I was expecting to encounter a cheap-looking cash grab intent on exploiting the critical and financial success of the first movie. Imagine my relief when I saw Zoetrope Studios and Francis Ford Coppola back in the Opening Credits.
‘The Black Stallion Returns’ picks up in 1947, a year after the events of the first film. Evidently ‘Alec’ endured a growth spurt or two and is now clearly a young teenager (4 years between movies’ll do that). It pushes the bounds of believability, but who cares. SO, after ‘Alec’ became a minor celebrity on the race circuit, it seems that his equestrian exploits caught the attention of ‘The Blacks’ previous Moroccan owners, who covertly come to New York and set about trying to steal the magnificent animal back. After setting the Ramsey’s barn on fire as a distraction, a family of shady North Africans abscond with the horse, whom they call ‘Shetan’. ‘Alec’ gives chase and nearly manages to get the horse back, but is trapped at the docks by the North Africans. After binding and gagging the kid on the dock, the bastards set sail, with ‘The Black’ confined below decks. Using his trusty jack-knife, ‘Alec’ cuts himself free and sets about formulating a plan to rescue the horse back. Based on the registered port on the stern of the escaping cargo ship, ‘Alec’ figures that he must find a way to the city of Casablanca (which is pretty presumptuous of him). He does so by stowing away on an amphibious airliner bound for the region (after leaving his poor mother a cryptic message that would leave any worried parent in hysterics). He’s eventually discovered and placed into French Foreign Legion custody. Before they can send him back, he escapes the compound and barters for passage to where he believes ‘The Black’ will be found. He happens to encounter the same asshole who burned his barn down and barters with him for passage. True to form, this prick and his side-kick abandon “Alec’ in the desert. By chance, the boy encounters ‘Raj’ (Vincent Spano), a Moroccan intent on riding in the upcoming ‘test of endurance’ race through the inhospitable desert, in the name of Family Honor. ‘Alec’ eventually finds ‘The Black’ and, after some intrigue, is granted the right to race him.
‘The Black Stallion Returns’ could’ve been a LOT worse, but it also could’ve been a LOT better. Some script issues and budget cuts knock this one back a few pegs (the inclusion of obvious stock airplane footage was embarrassing), and the focus on a more complicated story does the film no favors either. This one tries too hard to use complex Family and Honor-type motivations to propel many of it’s characters and situations, whereas the first one kept everything nice and simple, and wowed us with the visuals and character dynamics. From a script perspective, the direction they do go in makes sense, as it does need to be considered that before the ship sank in the first film, The Black Stallion DID belong to SOMEBODY. It also makes sense that that SOMEBODY may want to reclaim their property. It was this aspect that made me start questioning ‘Alec’s apparent sense of almost bullish entitlement. Everywhere he went, he’s always proclaiming ownership of ‘The Black’ and everyone else is constantly telling him “No”, that’s not how it is. And when you DO think about it for a moment, ‘Alec’ is an interloper. By Law, the horse really isn’t his. It was ‘property’ that just happened to have been salvaged when he was saved from the island. It also makes sense that the filmmakers would try to up the Fun Factor by turning ‘Alec’ into something resembling Mini Indiana Jones and they definitely pushed for the Action / Adventure vibe, and I can’t decide if that direction was a good one or not. (*shrugs*). Some of the cinematography was appropriately large-scale, but an equal amount felt lazy and lifeless (more hazy soft-focus, like my complaints about ‘Rambo 2’!!). The ‘eye’ just wasn’t as ‘there’ for this one, as it was for the first film. They even blatantly reused that beautiful Title Sequence again, only this time superimposing a Title Card detailing the North African tribe and the importance of ‘Shetan’ to them over the imagery.
All in all, ‘The Black Stallion Returns’ is a passable, but ‘nothing special’ sequel to an extraordinary film. It does feature some nice visuals and there are some exciting scenes, but it definitely feels cheaper and lazier than it’s predecessor. It does make me wonder what kind of career Kelly Reno could’ve had if he’d stuck with Acting, but part of me is glad that he, at least, has these movies as his cinematic legacy.

And there it is. My kneejerkreaction (at long last) to these two films from WAY back in my childhood. ‘The Black Stallion’ I truly can’t recommend enough…while the sequel is there for The Curious, but is by no means Required Viewing. Check out the first one!…especially if you have kids. It was a great film to see as a youngster, and I think it still deserves a good look today, from everyone fitting into the ‘Still Alive’ age range.

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