THE BLACK STALLION" is one of the few movies that justifies the word "sublime." It casts an immediate pictorial spell of wonder and discovery and sustains it until a fadeout that leaves you in a euphoric mood, lingering over images whose beauty and emotional intensity you want to prolong and savor.
American moviegoers have seldom been offered a more deserving object of affection. If you think "The Wizard of Oz" or vintage Disney triggered your fundamental childhood longings and apprehensions, wait till you get a look at "The Black Stallion," a live-action adventure fantasy of comparable sentimental power.
The full impact of director Carroll Ballard's achievement probably won't be felt until next spring, when "The Black Stallion" goes into extensive national release and the whole country can begin falling in love with it. But happily, it's an early arrival in Washington, opening an exclusive engagement Wednesday at the Avalon 1. Even with a genie on call, it would be impossible to conjure up a Christmas treat more desirable, particularly for families and children -- who may be profoundly affected by the movie's thrill-packed scenario, rapturous vision and fundamental celebration of adventurous impulses and fantastic heroic feats. a
The spiritual bonding of a boy (portrayed by 11-year-old Kelly Reno, a rancher's son from Pueblo, Colo.) and a stallion (principally embodied by an Arabian named Cass-ole, with doubling by several other horses when specific stunts required it) is portrayed almost entirely through vignettes whose charm seem even more amazing when you consider how difficult they must have been to rehearse, set up and preserve.
One of the film's great triumphs -- a testimony to the filmmakers' phenomenal patience and talents -- is the rapport achieved between child and animal. Their mutual love and trust seem to emerge spontaneously on the screen like some elemental natural process -- childbirth or the unfolding of a flower.
The young protagonist named Alex is a plucky kid traveling with his father on an ocean voyage. He is attracted to an unwilling fellow passenger: a beautiful, jet-black Arabian stallion restrained inside a stateroom. As a goodwill token, Alex leaves lumps of sugar for this seething, powerful animal on the ledge of his makeshift stall. His father, a hearty, fanciful, resourceful man, further inflames the boy's imagination. He gives Alex an amulet craved in the shape of a horse's head, part of the loot from a successful card game, and tells him it represents a legendary, magical horse once tamed by Alexander the Great.
A sudden storm at night precipitates a disastrous fire on the ship. Alex's father proves a tower of strength during the general panic, but he and the boy are separated. Hearing the cries of the stallion, Alex opens the door of his stall. a mement later the animal bursts out and leaps overboard, one of many sights that takes your breath away. Alex falls overboard and is nearly sucked into the ship's propeller before sighting the stallion and managing to cling to his broken harnesses for dear life.
The only survivors of the shipwreck, Alex and the stallion was up on a desert island. The struggle for survival continues in this setting, which is transformed into an idyllic retreat after Alex succeeds in becoming the horse's friend, soulmate and rider -- a half-hour sequence of events depicted with awesome beauty and dramatic ingenuity.
A rescue party arrives and attempts to take Alex back. The horse, whom the boy calls simply The Black, refuses to be parted from his young master.
Returning to his home -- Flushing, Long Island in a dreamy, tenderly evoked late '40s -- and widowed mother, Alex finds it difficult to adjust easily to civilization and a hero's welcome. The Black, needing to run wild and free, finds it even more difficult. Eventually, an adventurous solution presents itself: Alex rides The Black in an improbable, thrilling challenge race against the two greatest throughbreds in the United States.
Where did this marvelous picture come from? The scenario has been astutely distiled from a popular children's novel by Walter Farley, who was a 19-yeard-old Columiba undergraduate when his book was originally published in 1941. Subsequently, he turned the prototype into a successful series, now numbering 17 volumes.
Who is Carroll Ballard? A widely respected documentary filmmaker, breaking into fictional features later than anticipated. Now, in his early 40s, Ballard was a contemporary of Francis Ford Coppola at the UCLA film school. "The Black Stallion" was made under the auspices of Coppla's production company, Omni Zoetrope. Ironcially, it is likely to prove a more durable and influential movie than Coppola's own "Apocalypse Now." Would a certain strain be placed on the shop if "The Black Stallion" became a serious threat to the Academy Award plans Omni must be making for "Apocalypse?"
While "The Black Stallion" may still be too obscure to figure in this year's awards competition, it would merit at least half a dozen Oscars on mere merit. Best film, naturally, augmented by Ballard for direction, the wizardly Caleb Deschenel for cinematography and Robert Dalva for editing, Carmine Coppola for lovely score, and most satisfying of all, Mickey Rooney for supporting actor.
Rooney's endearing, elder statesmanly performance as a canny horse trainer surely deserves Hollywood's ultimate recognition. It crowns a great career while sweetly echoing one of Rooney's best roles: Mi Taylor, the young trainer who readied Elizabeth Taylor's Velvet Brown for the Grand National. Ballard is admirably sensitive to such affinities. Kelly Reno has a round, freckled mug that recalls Jackie Jenkins, who played Taylor's kid brother in "National Velvet" and Rooney's kid brother in "The Human Comedy."
Ballard was always regarded as a formidable talent, probably the most distinctive lyric documentary director since Robert Flaherty. He may have needed a special kind of story material to channel his abilities into the filmmaking mainstream. And in the mythic, fairy-tale context of "the Black Stallion," Ballard can emerge as a dramatic director while making the most of his extraordinary lyric imagination. He is alert to fleeting expressive possibilities in virtually everything perceivable -- landscapes, settings, objects, faces, creatures great and small, the elements, sunlight, darkness. Ostensibly seen through the child's eyes, all these reflections of the world acquire a fresh beauty or sinister significance.
A distinguishing characteristic of Ballard's work is this vivid, heightened apprehension of reality, much rarer in the film medium than it's presumed to be, or ought to be. In "The Black Stallion" the Dolby sound dramatically enhances the evocative power of the imagery and editing; the throbbing of a ship's engines or the breathing rhythm of a running horse reinforce the pictorial sensations of navigating along a windblown deck or trying to stay perched on the back of a swift animal.
Ballard is far from helpless when diaglogue is necessary and gets wonderful performances from a deftly selected cast, especially Rooney and the majestic old black actor Clarence Muse, appearing as an almost supernatural figure. But many of the most eloquent moments are pictorial vignettes.
The story belongs to the tradition of "The Yearling," "National Velvet," My Friend Flicka," The Red Pony" and similar juvenile classics. vThe influence of The Yearling" is apparent in the unusually poetic conception of the emotional bond between a brave child and wild animal and in the unususally rich color saturation and play of light manipulated by Deschenel. The influence of "National Velvet" is apparent, of course, in the inspired nostalgic casting of Rooney and the climactic race, which Farley may have abstracted from Enid Bagnold's novel to begin with.
Yet "The Black Stallion" transcends its throughbred forerunners in this genre, sustaining a miraculous quality of illusion, the sense of astonishing events constantly happening within a realistically observed world. Of course, "The Yearling" had serious social aspects that complicated the relationship of the child and animal. "The Black Stallion" doesn't have to end tragically. It remains a blissful escapist celebration of childish ardor and valor.
Know-it-all kids who jump to the cnclusion that a G-rated movie called "The Black Stallion" must be something innocuous will be passing up one of the most satisfying thrills of a moviegoing lifetime. Perhaps "The Black Stallion" can even help rehabilitate the sadly ghettoized G category. It teems with sensuous and emotional stimualtion, with life-or-death perils that engage certain elemental fears and will have grown-ups as well as children experiencing anxious moments.
For example, I don't expect any responsive viewer to feel comfy during the shipwreck sequence, which culminates in the boy, and the horse hurtling overboard. It's a riveting, scary impressionistic sequence, a masterpiece of atmospheric lighting and dynamic editing, inspired by Eisentein's classic depiction of panic on the Odessa Steps in "Potemkin" and more than worthy of its model. The fragmentary images convey a vivid sense of mortal danger while incorporating several little private dramas that unfold among the endangered passengers and also advancing the plot which obliges the boy and horse to become soulmates in response to their mutual misfortune.
In a similar respect, the boy's confronataton with a cobra during the island idyll is not calculated to appease faint hearts among the young or old. Indeed, one of editor Dalva's most brilliant juxtapositions is liable to produce a response similar to the sight of the shark first popping into view in "Jaws. In this case the shock is conveyed by cutting directly from a full shot of the boy's face as he lifts his head from aa nap and suddenly comprehends his danger to a full shot of the snake, puffed out and staring him -- and us -- right in the kisser.
If the harrowing interludes tempt you to clutch your kids for reassurance, the sentimental and triumphant passages are likely to stir helpless feelings of another sort. Time after time Ballard, the crew, the horse trainers (the sons of Glen Randall, who coached Trigger and Champion, among others a generation ago) and the cast achieve things that defy belief. Yet you see these impossible revelatory moments, they're happening right in front of your eyes for heaven's sake, and you're moved beyond expression.
The most remarkable interludes occur on the island. In the course of one fantastically sustained and joyous sequence the boy attempts to coax the horse to take an offering of seaweed, which he himself has learned to feed on. The encounter is staged on the beach at twilight, with the water shimmering behind the child and animal as they warily approach each other in the shallow surf, edging closer and backing off until finally, after an agonizing prolongation of suspense, the boy's offer is accepted -- a close-up captures the horse reaching out to go "chomp" on the seaweed -- and you heart leaps straight into your throat.
Ballard never lets up. This passage is followed by an underwater sequence in which you see the boy's legs come paddling into camera range, followed presently by the horse's legs. Ballard orchestrates a beguiling underwater pas de deux before climaxing it with an electrifying idea: While still underwater, the boy suddenly leaps onto the horse's back and begins riding him for the very first time.
Ordinarily, one comes out of a G-rated movie feeling anything but exhilarated. But the cumulative effect of dozens of such authentically magic moments is a sense of well-being customarily associated with the afterglow from a great musical or a great comedy.
If Ballard never makes another theatrical features, he'll be remembered as one of the great creative artists in the history of American filmmaking. And as long as the negative is guarded like a national treasure and the color prints are deiligently processed and maintained, "The Black Stallion" should remain not only a legendary thing of beauty also an inspirational joy forever.