Monday, 27 February 2017

On demand: "The Black Stallion"

When they say they don't make 'em like they used to, The Black Stallion is presumably close to what they mean. For starters, there is the matter of that title, nowadays a source of sniggering; then that someone should have cared to do a live-action adventure featuring an actual horse, rather than a pixellated equivalent; then that said project should have been entrusted to a skilled cinematographer, rather than any passing hack. But then this was the late 1970s, when an independently minded producer like Francis Ford Coppola still had carte blanche to assemble his personnel as he saw fit, and before the Star Wars sequels had insisted that every family film should arrive alongside a thousand marketing tie-ins.

Right down to one very knowing piece of casting, this was at heart a throwback to the matinees of the moviebrats' youth - in this instance, those kid-and-pet confections (think National Velvet, The Yearling, Old Yeller) lent greater scope, texture and intensity by the team Coppola assembled for the project: director Carroll Ballard, writer Melissa Mathison (warming up for E.T. by adapting Walter Farley's novel), cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, several prominent examples of that doughty strain of character actor that seemed to flourish in the 1970s, plus the best horse wranglers and whisperers in the business.

Opening with - James Cameron be damned - cinema's most terrifying shipwreck, it's a tale of abandonment transformed into something else: that of a freckle-faced boy in ragged PJs (Kelly Reno, the closest American film got to Kes's David Bradley), who washes up on a Mediterranean island, his only playmate the jittery, jetblack steed who carried him safely ashore. The first hour maintains an air of documentary, and is all the more captivating for it. We're watching a little kid trying to tempt a wild beast his way with but a palm leaf and a handful of good intentions, and Ballard is wise enough to know when to fade down Carmine Coppola's romantic orchestrations and let this process play out in suspenseful silence.

The second half, in which our heroes are returned to post-War suburbia, proves inevitably more conventional, and you can tell this is a product of the movie mainstream from the manner in which Mathison and Ballard elide the trauma this boy has been through in the pursuit of redemptive sporting glory; it can feel as though everybody involved was keen to use these two hours to bring that element of wildness in the film's own DNA under control. (Which may, in fact, be what Coppola required - a safe bet - once Apocalypse Now began spiralling in the opposite direction: for all the company's invention and daring, here was one of American Zoetrope's few bankable successes.)

The two-hour running time would, one suspects, be another aspect deemed untenable within the context of the modern multiplex: some of the dialogue in which Mickey Rooney's aged trainer swears the kid to their not-so-little (equine) secret would surely have to go, or need a little finessing, lest it risk misinterpretation. Still, it remains handsome right through to the final furlong, and retains that feel - rare and therefore cherishable in U/PG-rated fare - of properly weathered, passed-down life experience. When, late in the day, a passing rag-and-bone man asks our boy "What happened to you?", it makes sense that he should reply with a single word: "Everything."

The Black Stallion is now streaming on Netflix.  

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