Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Fishing in the Discount Bin - The Black Stallion

Here we are again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, my weekly rambling about one of the many DVDs and Blu-Rays I own.  This time out, we get to a classic from my childhood that's not talked about that much anymore...The Black Stallion.  This is in my notes at August 8, 2015.

There are films from my childhood that seem to have been forgotten.  They were merchandised to death, my friends were big fans of them, but these day...they're gone.  No one seems to speak of them anymore.  One such film is The Black Stallion.  This 1979 family film, based on the famous children's book by Walter Farley, was critically acclaimed when it came out.  It was a box office hit.  Francis Ford Coppola was the executive producer.  Melisa Mathison, who went on to write E.T., wrote the screenplay.  Why would a film from the creators of The Godfather and E.T. lose its lustre?

I remember watching it several times when I was a kid.  The most memorable had to be movie day in class when I was in elementary school.  When I was in the second or third grade my school made a really big deal about getting a Laserdisc player.  So the Laserdisc player was rolled into class one day, and we watched The Black Stallion.  I only remember the opening scenes, of the fire and the shipwreck...the entire scenes exist monochromaticly, in orange and black, as it's only lit by the fire of the explosions.  It's very striking. 

The film exists in two distinct halves.  Our hero is a young boy named Alec.  While on a sea voyage with his father, he discovers, down in the cargo hold, a magnificent black Arabian stallion.  But tragedy strikes.  There's an accident of some kind...they never explain it.  The ship explodes and sinks.  Alec's father is killed.  The only survivors are Alec and the Black Stallion, who wash up on a deserted island.  And this is the first half of the film, where Alec and the Black slowly earn each other's trust, and soon start working together for survival.  This...is a remarkable sequence.  It's almost a silent film.  There's no dialogue for this huge section of the film as it's just Alec and the Black on the island.

But, eventually, they're rescued, and that leads to the second half of the film:  their return to civilization.  The Black has troubles adapting to 1940s suburbia (the time the film takes place), and soon wanders off, finding a new home at a rundown horse stable at the edge of town.  Noticing how the Black likes to run, Alec begins toying with the notion of training the Black to be a racehorse. 

Watching the film this afternoon, I was taken with its silence.  To make such a movie these days, the music would be overwhelming, with every dramatic moment telegraphed with the appropriate crescendos.  But the music...is so subtle.  There's silence...time for the moments to breathe.  Rather than triumphant trumpets as the horses race, all we hear is the thunder of the horse's hooves.  On the island, all we get is the crash of the waves.  It's such a haunting soundscape.  But, don't get me wrong, there is music, from Godfather composer Carmine Coppola, and it adds to the dreamlike qualities of the film.  He was doing that discordant chimes thing before Thomas Newman made it cool with American Beauty

And as nice as it is, it feels like there are some intriguing subplots that could have been explored, but were kind of glossed over.  Alec's mother, for example, spies Alec sleeping in the backyard next to the Black, so she brings them blankets.  As she tucks in her son, she says to the horse, "Thank you for bringing back my son.  But I wish you brought back his father, too."  Or the owner of that old horse barn, Henry, who, when trying to get the Black into a race, whispers, "You know how much I need this."  Obviously, he sees some kind of redemption in helping out Alec and the Black, but what it is, they never get into. 

In a way, though, it's nice that they keep the story focused on Alec and the Black.  It gives it focus without drifting into too many subplots. 

I don't know what to say about it.  It's not really a conventional kids film.  Reading up on it online, I see the movie studio actually kept it on the shelf for two years, decrying it as "an art house film for kids."  Look at the era it came out in, when Star Wars was making family entertainment all about the spectacle.  This was, no doubt, quite the change of pace, and probably why it's gotten overlooked in recent years.

Yeah, it's not as big and splashy as other family films that have come since, but it's good.  As I said, it's dreamlike.  With it's music, and it's legendary cinematography.  It's...strange.  In a good way. 

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