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With: Kelly Reno, Mickey Rooney, Teri Garr, Clarence Muse, Hoyt Axton, Michael Higgins, Ed McNamara
Written by: Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, William D. Wittliff, based on a novel by Walter Farley
Directed by: Carroll Ballard
MPAA Rating: G
Running Time: 118
Date: 10/17/1979

The Black Stallion (1979)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Horse Tale

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

An associate of Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, filmmaker Carroll Ballard seems drawn to the outdoors and to animals, and especially the way humans relate to these things. He began making short documentaries and shot second-unit footage for Star Wars before making his feature directorial debut with this astoundingly beautiful children's film. Produced by Coppola, and based on the novel by Walter Farley, The Black Stallion tells the story of a young boy, Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno), who, in the 1940s, finds himself shipwrecked with a mysterious Arabian stallion. Eventually rescued, he and horse trainer Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney) turn him into a racer. Teri Garr co-stars as Alec's mother.

The film's minimal dialogue and meditative images give it a mesmerizing, dreamlike quality, and yet images of the sinking ship and of Alec teaching the horse to eat out of his hand are also touchingly realistic. Then, the thundering racetrack scenes have their own visceral effect; all of it is a powerful example of physical filmmaking, delving into sensation and touch. Though it's perfectly acceptable for viewers of all ages, it's so different from today's "family" movies that youngsters in 2015 may have difficulty adjusting to its gentle rhythms.

Child star Kelly Reno was already an expert horse handler, and quit acting shortly thereafter. Rooney received an Oscar nomination for his performance as the horse trainer. The film received a second nomination for Best Film Editing and won a special Oscar for sound editing. Co-screenwriter Melissa Mathison would go on to write E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial for Steven Spielberg and Kundun for Martin Scorsese.

The Criterion Collection released a much-needed Blu-ray edition in 2015. (The old DVD was rather out-of-date.) This release beautifully highlights the lush, soft cinematography and naturalistic sounds. Extras include a new interview with Ballard, conducted by critic Scott Foundas; an interview with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel; an interview with photographer Mary Ellen Mark, five of Ballard's short films (the Oscar-nominated Harvest is not included) introduced by the filmmaker, and a trailer. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by one of my favorite critics, Michael Sragow. Nicolas Delort provided the lovely new cover art.

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