The Black Stallion (1979) is not only one of the best family movies ever made, or one of the best “kids” movies ever made, it’s one of The Best Movies Ever Made, period.
Breathtakingly filmed, the director (Carroll Ballard) truly uses the film as a canvas, with very little dialogue included. The first 40 minutes has practically no dialogue, except for a conversation the young boy Alec (Kelly Reno) has with his father. It actually has the feel of an independent movie.
The movie starts aboard a cruise ship, with Henry and his father as passengers. As the ship catches fire and sinks (in a sequence as terrifying as the plane crash in Castaway (2000), the only survivors are Alec and a horse (The Black), who end up on a small deserted island.
The sequences on the island as the boy and horse bond have a surrealistic quality, almost like a modern ballet. After Alec and The Black are rescued, the film continues back home, as they meet an old trainer, Henry (Mickey Rooney). Lawrence Olivier once said that Mickey Rooney was “… the best actor America has produced.” I wouldn’t go that far, but Rooney is one of those actors of the Gene Hackman variety, who make acting seem totally natural and effortless.
A special nod to the young actor Kelly Reno. Reminiscent of the child actors in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), the director and writers were wise to not make his character precocious. He comes across as bewildered and in awe at his experiences, which considering what he’s going through, is very natural.
Of course, at the end we have a race. Viscerally shot, we feel as if we’re riding with Alec. Unlike most race track sequences, the director wisely leaves out the track announcer (an unnecessary distraction), thus we’re totally drawn in with the sound of the pounding hooves surrounding us.
Most of the movie is shot in hand-held style. Many people dislike that style of film making. They are all wrong of course. Real life is hand-held. It makes us feel as a participant, not a spectator.
One thing I especially appreciated about this movie, it shows that riding a horse is NOT EASY! Last year, we rode horses on the beach in the Dominican Republic. A wonderful experience, and ever since then I marvel at people that can ride a horse with seeming effortlessness.