I'm a big fan of many of the films that Francis Coppola has put out under his American Zoetrope films banner. Zoetrope was such a novel and progressive idea before it's initial failure as a standalone studio. Coppola really did want to construct an environment where filmmakers and artists could have room and solid funding to allow for their most singular creative ideas to come to fruition.
Released the same years as Coppola's epic APOCALYPSE NOW, THE BLACK STALLION is certainly overshadowed by that behemoth and has dropped into a place of lesser prominence up to now. This is unfortunate because despite it not having been directed by Coppola himself, it fits perfectly into the tapestry of wonderful cinema that he was creating during that time.
Early on in THE BLACK STALLION there is a scene that is more befitting a disaster movie than a family classic. A boat is sinking and the young boy and his father are awakened by being tossed across their cabin. When they emerge, what they see before them is utter chaos. It is one of the most potent scenes of chaos in a film. There are people running about, the deck is being doused relentlessly with water and the ship itself is on fire. You know you are in the midst of something serious when the fire is only one part of your worries. So the boy's father gets him into an oversized life vest and tells him to hang onto a railing against the ship as he proceeds to try to help with all the distress. It's amazing how well put together this scene is and how it very much plays out from the boy's perspective (as does the whole movie pretty much). Suddenly, a horse that had been wrangled into a nearby cabin breaks out and basically jumps off the boat. A man attacks the boy and attempts to cut his lifejacket off with a knife. The boy's father sees this and tackles the evil man. They tussle and as they do so, the boy ends up backing off the edge of the deck and plunging into the ocean. He's left to witness the ship's gigantic propeller tilting up into the air as the entire behemoth sinks at an alarming rate. The boy is surrounded by fiery debris and he is without a lifejacket. He sees the horse swimming about nearby. I won't go any further, but suffice it to say that this sequence is quite traumatic and terrifying. I had not watched this film since prior to having my own child and my chest became immediately tight with anxiety and I could feel myself getting emotional just thinking about myself in the same situation. It is a remarkably powerful opening and one that pulls off a thing that not many films can - it engages us emotionally with the father and son just enough prior to the bedlam that we cannot help but be nearly despondent when the kid hits the water. Too many films attempt an serious emotional connection with the audience too early before we've been given enough time to bond with the characters and it can be very dangerous in that it allows for the possibility of losing connection with the movie and perhaps never getting it back. To derail early is sad thing, but to create that bond and hook people in quickly followed by a portentous event can be absolutely galvanizing and keep the viewer on board for the remainder of the movie. It's a fine line to walk, but I always admire films like THE BLACK STALLION that do it well.
Another thing that THE BLACK STALLION does well is to function as almost a silent film through long stretches of it's runtime. It is certainly a significantly cinematic movie and one of the most cinematic family features I can think of. It is a movie that takes its time and really breathes as it shows us the story of a boy and his horse. We have plenty of animated family movies nowadays (I was reminded a bit of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON in watching this), but what we are in shorter and short supply of is live-action big studio movies like this that are perfect for young children and adults alike.
THE BLACK STALLION holds up well for a film that is 36 years young. The young boy (Kelly Reno - who only really acted in this film and one follow-up to it) is tremendous, Caleb Deschanel's (Zooey's dad) cinematography is lush and gorgeous (it feels like a Malick movie) and Carmine Coppola's (Francis' dad) is a delight that wrings adventure and exhilaration from every note. This is a truly great movie and one worth showing your children as soon as possible.
This Director Approved Special Edition has several nice supplements:
- A New, restored 4K digital transfer, supervised by director of photography Caleb Deschanel, with 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray.
-Five short films by director Carroll Ballard, with new introductions by the filmmaker: Pigs! (1965), The Perils of Priscilla (1969), Rodeo (1969), Seems Like Only Yesterday (1971), and Crystallization(1974).
-New conversation between Ballard and film critic Scott Foundas.
-New interview with Caleb Deschanel.
-New piece featuring Mary Ellen Mark discussing her photographs from the film’s set.