The Black Stallion (1979)

The Black Stallion is very much a film of two halves. You could enter the film at the midpoint and still enjoy the back 50% as a self-contained story. Similarly, you could just watch the first chunk and then turn it off feeling surprisingly satisfied. Viewed as a whole, though, Stallion serves as a personality quiz centered around whichever half you ultimately prefer. Think Full Metal Jacket or King Kong, which not only bring characters through two vastly different settings but seemingly bring them through different genres of film as well. It’s possible to enjoy the whole film in each of these instances, but by design one segment probably connects with you more powerfully than the other.

The first half of Stallion introduces young Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) and the eponymous Black Stallion aboard an unnamed vessel floating in the Mediterranean. Alec, poking around as his father gambles with the foreign seamen, sees the wild horse tied and locked into one of the holds of the ship by its owners. He’s enraptured by it. When the ship crashes and Alec’s father is killed, the stallion saves Alec from death and the pair wash up on a picturesque island. This half of the film is highly meditative and yet highly tactile, focused both on sweeping vistas and on visual symbolism. Aside from a near-monologue delivered by Alec’s father, there’s virtually no dialogue in this entire stretch of The Black Stallion. We’re given no information regarding who Alec and his father actually are, why they’re on this ship, where they’re going. Even the sinking of the ship simply happens, reasons unexplained.

The second half is Seabiscuit, more or less. Alec and the stallion are rescued and returned to Suburban America, where a retired racehorse trainer (Mickey Rooney) eventually trains them both for a big climactic race. The dosage of dialogue, supporting characters and specific locations increases dramatically in this second half, now that Alec and his equine friend are back in the real world amongst real people. The story they play out is the classic underdog sports narrative, and it’s not unexciting for all of its familiarity. It is, however, vastly different than the careful and minimalistic opening of the film, plotted thickly such that the movie seems to be compensating for being so pensive out of the gate.

In Stallion‘s case there are likely a few reasons for this dichotic presentation, chief among them being the source material in Walter Farley’s series of short novels. Farley’s stories were geared primarily toward younger readers, so most installments clocked in around 150 pages comprised of succinct, event-driven chapters. It’s common for multiple children’s books to be jammed into one movie — be it A Series of Unfortunate Events, Goosebumps, the upcoming Artemis Fowl — and indeed the Black Stallion adaptation was originally intended to incorporate events from Returns, the second book in the series.

Another reason for the midpoint shift might be the number of writers on the film, credited or otherwise. Walter Murch, one of the first brought to the project by director Carroll Ballard, explains how the early script stages led to the involvement of multiple writers over time:

Writing as a group nets film as varied as Enemy of the State (four writers including Aaron Sorkin at one point), Armageddon (five writers including J.J. Abrams at one point), the recent Captain Marvel (five Story By credits) and Dumb and Dumber To (six Screenplay credits). In Stallion, with such a shift in tone and plotting coming at the halfway mark, it’s tough not to wonder where the strengths of each writer were put to use. Murch himself would ultimately go uncredited, with that honor being shared between Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg and William D. Wittliff.

Mathison’s pen is the most recognizable, especially in context of her later work. Her follow-up was E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, another story about a young boy forming a deep bond with a non-human character from a faraway world. Story similarities aside, though, the first half of Stallion is especially Spielbergian in its childlike wonder and epic scope, to a degree that makes one question whether “Mathisonian” is the label we should have been using for that particular family-adventure brand instead.

The perceived strengths of these two halves were a toss up even in 1979, with some critics like Roger Ebert as enraptured as young Alec during Stallion’s opening:

The first half of The Black Stallion is so gloriously breathtaking that the second half, the half with all the conventional excitement, seems merely routine. We’ve seen the second half before — the story of the kid, the horse, the veteran trainer, and the big race. But the first hour of this movie belongs among the great filmgoing experiences. It is described as an epic, and earns the description.

Others, like The New York TimesJanet Maslin, found the exact opposite to be true:

On the beach, the horse gallops and the movie crawls. The director, Carroll Ballard, and the cinematographer, Caleb Deschanel, have captured so many lavishly beautiful images that the cumulative effect is one of repetition…And it requires more action in the telling, plain and simple. Mr. Ballard’s direction, of a story designed to excite the viewer’s imagination and curiosity, instead stifles these feelings by emphasizing the cosmetic value of every frame…The best part of The Black Stallion is the second half, which introduces Mickey Rooney as a retired horse trainer who helps the boy and stallion prepare for a climactic race.

With respect to Maslin, I’m definitely partial to the first half. The visual storytelling and economy of words is impressive, disregarding exposition of any kind in favor of an atmosphere of mystery and magic. The second half could have been anything, really; Walter Murch alludes to the Arabian Desert adventure of Returns as the first-draft ending to this film, but any of the published Black Stallion adventures could theoretically have served as the back end. The first part never feels directionless in spite of the fact that it could go anywhere. Hollywood churns out a lot that looks like the underdog sports narrative of the film, so it’s still a surprise to see that conventional tale done well. But the magic of the first half of The Black Stallion, like the wild horse itself, is a rare wonder.

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