The Black Stallion is more than 35 years old, but Carroll Ballard’s adaptation of Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel has become a right of passage for generations of movie lovers — both children who aren’t even aware of the book series, and their parents, who fell in love with the story themselves as kids and now can’t resist watching it again reflected in their youngsters’ very wide eyes.
With a new Criterion Collection edition out July 14, it’s an ideal moment to revisit the timeless classic about a shy boy named Alec (Kelly Reno) who is shipwrecked on an island with the wild Arabian horse that dragged him to safety after their ship capsized. Lonely and struggling to survive, the two forge a bond so special that when they are eventually rescued by fishermen, some young viewers are almost disappointed that they leave the island paradise where Alec can ride the horse through the surf as if they’re the only two creatures alive. A skeptical studio exec once blasted The Black Stallion for being an “art film for kids,” but mesmerized kids won’t even mind — or notice — that the first half of the film is mostly dialogue-free, with long shots and sequences that pull the audience into the story.
Francis Ford Coppola produced The Black Stallion, using his clout after The Godfather films to get it made (and needing it to be a hit after typhoons wrecked his Apocalypse Now sets). It was the first feature film for Ballard (Fly Away Home) and screenwriter Melissa Matheson (E.T.), and only the second feature for cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Natural), who would go on to be nominated for five Academy Awards (but somehow was overlooked for The Black Stallion).
In this exclusive clip from the new Criterion Blu-ray, Deschanel talks about then-12 year old Reno, the unproven actor but experienced horseman who brought an authenticity to the role that extended to his relationship with the powerful stallion. “Looking at it again, I’m really struck at how comfortable he was with this big horse,” says Deschanel. “You just get the feeling that he’s friends with the horse and that they understand each other.”
The Black Stallion was nominated for two Academy Awards, one for Best Editing and one for Mickey Rooney, who played the retired jockey who befriends Alec and helps train the Black for the climactic match race. The new remastered Criterion Blu-ray features several new extras, including an extended interview with Ballard, five of his pre-Stallion short films, and conversations with Deschanel and photographer Mary Ellen Mark.