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The Black Stallion

Spoilerish below (basically outlines the basic plot of the film, but for those who want to know as little as possible about a film, might want to avoid reading)

It's hard for me to reckon with the disappointing second half of The Black Stallion. It may simply be a stumble by the film itself, breaking its spell by trotting Mickey Rooney into the frame to teach us life lessons, force poor Kelly Reno out of bed much too early and stretch out his jockey pants with his fat little legs. Or maybe it’s entirely my fault, unable to reconcile how the mystery and magic of the first hour gets itself siphoned into the gas tank of some horseracing narrative. Personally, I prefer my childhood desert island fantasies to leave me stranded on the beach with a horse, communicating with nothing but our hearts. Not rescue me for a lifetime of child labor and the sight of what was once the world’s biggest star humping a bale of hay.

As the film begins, we are out at sea with a father and son travelling by boat. Everything we see seems to exist in a place not rooted anywhere specific but memories. It plays more like a collection of images: a child remembering the shape of a boat, the expanse of the ocean, and the figure of a father seated at a card table with all sorts of other strange and exotic looking men. There are many sounds—the wind, the water, the tinkling of glass—but few words are ever spoken. The world of conversations, and all the sitting still that comes with them, seem exclusively to be the domain of adults. When words are sometimes spoken to the boy, they are from the mouths of those threatening him in foreign languages, or the screams of shipwreck drowners. In both cases, we can only silently observe, just as the boy does. He is a tourist watching a world he is not a part of yet. And he seems entirely comfortable staying there.

It will only be the child’s father that will have any words in these opening scenes worth listening to. He tells a fabled story of a stallion. Something both whimsical and yet relatable for a child to dig his brains into. When the ship they are travelling on soon after begins to sink, this story will be the last memory of his father he will bring with him as he tumbles overboard. And as if emerging from this very tale itself, a horse we have seen on the boat earlier, being wondered over by the boy, and being abused by its owners, appears in the water to save him. Grabbing its reigns, it pulls him to shore, saving him.

The rest of the film, while it remains on this island, seems as if it has grown from the words the boy’s father spoke to him. Both he and us, the viewers, have been transported to some sort of mythological state. It’s a fantasy we may have once hoped to insert ourselves into as well. While there is peril on the island, and we have concern for the safety of the boy at times, as the child’s relationship with the horse develops, there seems little reason for us to ever leave this place. The purity of their friendship keeps both loneliness and terror at bay. They ride through the waves and sleep on the sand. Nothing much happens, but nothing needs to. When a boat suddenly arrives near the shore, as the boy spots it rowing above where he swims, at first it is looked at more as a curious thing instead of a means to escape. Returning home is not of any primary concern. When you are living in a fiction at such an age, why would you look for a way out of it? Exactly, my sentiments as a member of the audience.

In the early scenes of the boy returning to his hometown, there is still a sense of dreamy wonder that somehow lingers. The boy is treated as an outcast, even as he is heralded as a hero for surviving the shipwreck. He still stands outside of conversations and stares out the window to where his horse now lives in their suburban backyard. But it won’t be long before the gravity of narrative, and the need to give us something to root for, lasso’s the whole film and wrestles it to the ground. He begins working at Rooney’s stable to pay for board. What a drag.

Then it’s discovered the horse is fierce fast, would be a beast at racing, and before we know it, the film has become something completely different. It is no longer a poem told through the eyes of a child. It is an ode to success and hard work. Blech! One minute, we are watching a child and horse celebrate their tentative friendship with a dance in the waters of an African tide. The next I am expected to cheer them on towards a finish line, while derelicts with mint julip pulp in their teeth clutch winning tickets to their chest. What a positively utilitarian thing to do with childhood whimsy. How grimly counterproductive to now be happy the child has gainful employment. Make sure you put “Tamer of Wild Stallions” on your resume, kid. It’s only going to get worse. And thanks for reminding me I’ve got work tomorrow (sidenote: no I don’t)

But while my nature may cause me to wince as I watch free-form island life sullied by the intrusion of watching a child learn the jockey trade, this does not mean I am entirely blind to the possibility that, when considered from both sides, the two halves of this film actually do have something to say about the brief illusion that is childhood. But I don’t have to like it. I don’t need to accept that, yes, this is where all the great mysteries of our youngest years lead us, left behind, almost as if on a desert island as we forge a path in this life, towards something that is supposed to make our dreams worth something. As if the dream wasn’t enough to begin with.

I suppose filmmakers, even with as much talent as Carol Ballard shows here, are prey to the same folly. And while the movie is still brilliant and a wonder, it still feels like a shame that it let perfection somehow slip from its grasp. It should have stayed where the reigns of the horse, grasped in the drowning waters of the Indian Ocean, brought us. And Mickey Rooney could have instead thankfully be left standing tippytoe on some street corner in Hollywood, talking about world domination as if it is something any of us should care about in the first place.