Taking the Plunge
By Ray Sawhill
The opening titles of Carroll Ballard’s “The Black Stallion,” in a cursive script that suggests Islamic calligraphy, appear over what seem to be sand dunes. The image is harsh yet jewel-like. A wind whips the sand, reshaping it, and a fierce golden light illuminates it. We register that the sand grains are big — that these are miniature dunes. As the sand is moved away, we see what it has been burying: a small, darkened-bronze horse that has the look of art from ancient Mediterranean cultures, from what we tend to picture as the cradle of civilization. The sculpture is realistic and not-realistic; it’s like Egyptian hieroglyphics, a symbol that happens (as if coincidentally) to look like what it symbolizes. Ballard’s film is based on the “Black Stallion” series of novels by Walter Farley; the script is credited to Melissa Mathison, Jeanne Rosenberg, and William Witliff. In the film, erotic nature poetry pours through the framework of a children’s story.
Sponsored for five years by Francis Coppola, Ballard made a film, his first feature, that is at once a children’s classic on a par with “The Wizard of Oz” and a realization of many avant-garde ideals — it may be the best children’s film ever made. (Coppola and Ballard had attended UCLA’s film school together in the early 1960s. Coppola devised a deal with United Artists to let Ballard make the film as he saw fit; when the executives didn’t like the finished work, Coppola interceded to obtain it a showing at the New York Film Festival and a theatrical opening.) As much as Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part II,” Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver,” and Altman’s “Nashville,” “The Black Stallion” is an embodiment of the ardor and euphoria of a period in the 1970s when artists briefly transformed American feature filmmaking. And like these other filmmakers, Ballard achieved something akin to visual music not by denying the commercial and storytelling aspects of film but by treating them as abstract properties and incorporating them into his film’s texture.
The opening section takes place mostly onboard ship. Alec (Kelly Reno), a boy of about ten, is on a sea voyage with his poker-playing dad. Wandering around the ship, the boy sees a magnificent black stallion fighting its Arab handlers, who wrestle it into a stall. As Ballard directs it, there’s a sense of latency about this passage. Everything is muffled, held in abeyance, contained. The skies are overcast, the features of the Arabs barely visible under their robes, the stallion roped down. Even the ocean beyond has something like a skin on it. There are indistinct yet vivid onboard-ship sounds, such as the changing timbre and source directions of the noise of the engine, which seems to irradiate the ship.
In the chopped-up spaces inside, Ballard uses rich golden lighting — everything is subdued but heavily sensual: old money and jewels, leather, aged skin, brass. This helps us understand the boy’s sense that things he doesn’t understand are going on all around him, and may remind you of the kind of wondering you did as a child about what existed before your birth. (Alec is only beginning to develop an idea of linear time and of cause and effect: of the properties of story.)
There’s nothing theoretical or programmatic about Ballard’s work; he sets up these associations and feelings and lets them register — he lets us take them in. When Alec leans over the edge of the ship to feel the wind and watch the sea rush by, Ballard shows us the long arc of the ship’s rim, a wedge of metallic water, and Alec’s body turned away from us. The image has similarities to various kinds of narrative-seeming Eastern art, and is a reminder of how much Japanese prints suggest illustrations to stories we’re not being told, and that might not make sense to us anyway.
Ballard is working with the conventions of a children’s adventure novel — exotic characters, Arabs, the tethered-down horse, the piles of loot on the poker table, an unexplained sea voyage — to create a storybook atmosphere of enchantment. He’s bringing together and setting alight interconnected feelings and memories: about childhood, moviegoing, the enchanted East, and the art we love as children. The boy enjoys and takes advantage of his ability to go unnoticed. While the Arabs look away, he places sugar cubes on the edge of the stallion’s stall; there’s an amazing shot of the stallion’s lips, seen in profile, reaching out, after some hesitation, to take the sugar. The arc shapes Ballard uses suggest the curves of linear art, yet from the center of these twists can be coaxed out the richly-modeled, Giotto-like face of the horse.
When the father (Hoyt Axton) returns from his card-playing to the cabin, he spills out his winnings — jewels, coins, marvels — and gives two prizes to his son: a penknife, and the toy horse we saw under the titles. The father explains that it’s a sculpture of Bucephalos, the horse Philip II was going to destroy — because no one could ride it — until Alexander, his son, mounted the horse and rode away. (Axton tells this story with gentle, sweet bravado.)
At the end of this section, the boy lies in his berth looking at the tiny sculpture, which is on a shelf. The camera closes in on the bronze, the golden light grows deeper, reddish, and the angle on the toy becomes cockeyed. As moviegoers we understand that the toy has set the boy to drowsy daydreaming — about his father, the stallion, about adventure and the magic of representation. Then we realize that the reddish light is from fire: the ship is on fire. There has never been a director so gifted at representing the way our perceptions and what they’re perceiving can grow confused. (He gets at how we have to learn how to perceive and interpret our mental processes, and at how you may never feel totally secure in your ability to do so.) As the boy’s father rushes him to the deck, the boy can’t help taking in the special qualities (and even the beauty) of the danger, and of his own fear. Alec opens the door of the stallion’s stall — the horse breaks free and leaps into the ocean — and fights the hubbub on deck. And then he’s in the water too.
Many of us probably aren’t aware of how often at the movies we’ve seen characters hit the water. Ballard gives this unfamiliar/familiar trope real resonance. (He has, in fact, made two great plunk-into-the-water scenes: the other is in his second feature, “Never Cry Wolf,” when the ecologist, walking across what seems to be an utterly barren, snow-covered field, pauses, hearing what might be scattered rifle shots from all directions, and then he’s through the ice, falling toward the bottom of the frozen lake it turns out he’s been crossing.) The ship and the ocean are as patently a model and a tank as they might be in a Fellini picture, but Ballard uses the artificiality for immediacy: they help sustain the storybook atmosphere, to keep us in tune with the child and to heighten the sense of mythic danger; things can seem unreal when you’re in peril. Whoosh, and Alec’s lost in a domain where everything moves in smooth, slow motion, where the light is still golden but diffuse, where the dark has a new density, and where things not only fall, they rise. Then the ship’s stern swings by and the propeller almost chews him up. The imagery seems to occur right at the edge of consciousness, like the images you may get of stairwells and escalators — are they the end of thought or the beginning of dream? — as you fall into sleep.
The horse struggles by, and swims off with the boy clutching a rope trailing from its neck. In the film’s second act, Alec awakens on a desert island. Exploring it, he finds the horse in its bridles and straps, caught among rocks. The boy cuts the animal free and sets about learning how to survive on the island, using his knife to spear fish and make fire. One morning he’s threatened by a cobra, and is saved when the stallion tramples it. The boy and horse make contact when he offers it some food. They grow to be fast friends, the boy learning to ride, the horse learning to accept a rider.
What Ballard held down in the first section he releases on the island. Colors and natural sounds rush in, and the child moves to the center. I was once hit by a car — tossed up into the night air — as I crossed a city street. During the moment between the collision and my landing on the sidewalk amid broken glass, I saw lights spinning around me, realized what had happened, and decided to take in the flavor of the sensations. I was bedazzled. This section of the movie has the submitting-to-rapture quality that instant had for me. It feels blown clear of caution and routine; you stand on a promontory, facing the wind and watching the weather take form miles away. The rocks and beaches, the strand, the sea beyond, the horse’s mane and tail like proud banners — we’re seeing nature in ecstasy.
The outlines are sinuous, Tiffany-like; the surfaces a swirl of pebble, mother-of-pearl, and silk; the tints the colors of semiprecious stones — peacock colors. The sound spectrum shifts too, from muffled to triumphant: crashing ocean, the drumming hooves of a horse running free. (Carmine Coppola’s music — much of it for winds, plucked strings, and simple drums — contributes a Near Eastern flavor.) When Ballard shows us the horse in nature as the child sees it, the creature has an aristocratic grandeur and wildness; it’s a beast from a more untamed world. (These images of the horse leading its own life in the wild are in the tradition of “White Mane,” and of the shots of horses in “Ecstasy.”) One image includes the horse toy, which the boy has placed on a rock, and, far behind it, galloping by the ocean’s edge, the stallion. We may register that the boy feels as though the toy is what his father bequeathed him.
Ballard gives you the gift of seeing into and beyond the expected; this corresponds to the way the boy’s senses are shaken into intense life by the magnitude of what has happened to him, and of what surrounds him. As Ballard (and his cinematographer Caleb Deschanel) film them, waves running up the sand are veils of overlapping color stroking a beaded ground, an image as transfixing as the sight of the sea bottom seen tens of feet below you from the edge of a boat. He maintains a precise respect for the framework, giving attention to Alec’s hunger, chills, sunburn and painful, bare feet. And he delivers the easy-to-anticipate story points — the exchange of rescues, the horse’s and boy’s acknowledgement of each other as allies, the making of contact — with an inspired ingenuity and pictorial grandeur that allows an adult to share a child viewer’s surprise. When Alec awakens to see the cobra rising and unfolding before him, the snake has the hyperrealism and the intricate patterned beauty of a pen-and-ink-and-watercolor monster. It seems to rise out of dream; it’s the monster you always expected to find under your bed, the one that would destroy sleep forever.
One passage is set to a waltz-like oboe, flute, and piano theme. We watch the boy and horse in the sea, goofing by the shore; the camera is underwater. We watch the horse’s proud, gauche, side-to-side motions, and the boy’s darting and weightlessness: a pas de deux for two unlikely dancers. It comes to an end with a flurry of bubbles and a cut to the boy astride the horse, which gallops through the shallow surf; the boy has mounted the horse for the first time. As Alec learns to ride and the horse adapts to a rider, we get images in slow motion, images from a camera that corkscrews and rises far overhead. The horse gallops through shallow water; Alec falls off the horse and into the surf, and tries again.
Ballard achieves the illusion of nature and the imagination merging, the world perceived ecstatically, while he speaks the language of the commercial cinema. Like the marketplace storyteller of the Near East, he’s aware that the market is its own language, and that he is speaking through that language. Yet he brings to this children’s movie an awareness of other centers and traditions, other cultures and formal possibilities. When the boy finds the stallion trapped among rocks, its bridles holding it down, Ballard’s composition of angles and sounds puts the scene, as a representation of blindness, power, and struggle, on a level with D.H. Lawrence’s image in “St. Mawr” of the reared-back horse, fallen over, its legs pawing the sky, and with Picasso’s image of a gored horse rising up on its front legs and protesting its death. (Alan Splet, who did the soundtrack, had a member of his team spend three weeks living with her tape recorder among horses. He shows here — as he does in his work with David Lynch — his gift for keeping us aware of sounds as mental events, happening inside our heads.)
Ballard is working into his film our experience of childhood, the art we remember from childhood, from the childhood of the medium, and from the childhood of the civilization that eventually produced the medium. The kids’ adventure-book landmarks are all mixed up with ways of seeing that we remember from children’s movies, silent movies, and Near Eastern art. (The horse has some of the sexiness of European “Orientalist” fantasies about slave markets and pashas, but with much more force behind it.)
When you think about the film artists whose work Ballard evokes, you realize how aware they were of developing and speaking a conventional language. In movies like “National Velvet” and “Thief of Bagdad,” themes are announced and played out. “I … believe that everyone should have a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly,” Velvet is told by her mother, and that entire film is laid out as crisply as her pronouncement. Most of “National Velvet” takes place in the studio; Clarence Brown, the director, uses the actual outdoors very selectively, mostly to heighten the wind-through-your-hair feeling of the riding sequences. He uses the studio stylization to help assemble a protected world in which a girl’s fervor could reach a culmination, and in which it makes sense that she might get to ride her horse in the Grand National. “Thief of Bagdad” is all about set design. Everything is made artificial. The film’s central symbol is a life-size toy horse that is assembled in parts, then wound up with a key. Whirrrr, click, and it becomes something better than a real horse, because it can gallop across the skies. The movie itself is a put-together toy that flies.
Using new technology and the current industry conditions, Ballard went out and found (or developed) in nature the kinds of effects, settings, and atmospheres that earlier directors developed in the studio and with special effects. In the animals on ancient coins, bulk, movement, and potential are all suggested by a few curving lines. Ballard uses movie conventions as ancient artists used these lines. They indicate to us the way into another realm. They’re chutes, the arcs we trace as we pass from one state into another — they’re beckonings, as well as, later, records of our passage. Ballard plunges into the forms created by earlier filmmakers and takes his style from what he drags with him as he moves below.
Ballard is showing that in the boy’s mind, a developing center of consciousness — a marketplace of feelings and ideas — is taking form. The apparatus of the seashore — the beach, the shipwreck, the island, the strand — corresponds to the emergence of conscious awareness, of a place to stand to see the Other (in this case, the animal Other). This passage on the island has to do with the first sense you get of your own consciousness jelling, an experience that we may, as adults, relive when our ideas begin to take on a life of their own. The imagery and sounds of the adventure book conventions (waking on the sand, wooing the horse, learning to fish) have been sweetened and perfumed, as though brought to us by travelers from lands we’ve never visited. The sparkle of the surfaces, the brocaded sand and lapis skies, the slow-motion that suggests an oral-storyteller’s favorite passage: Ballard’s goal is to create and sustain a moment of apprehension. We enter the once-crusted-over thing and wind up inside looking out. Then the boy and the horse are rescued by fishermen.
What happens rhythmically and emotionally in the third act is a pause, and then a building-back-up. As it begins, the boy is home with his mother (Teri Garr). The horse, kept for a night in their back yard and terrified by the early-morning noises of a suburb waking up, breaks free and races away. After a search, the boy finds it again, on the farm of a one-time horse trainer named Henry (Mickey Rooney). Henry agrees to give the horse a stall, and to train the boy and horse — accustoming the horse to the bridle and the boy to more formal race riding. He shows the pair off to a buddy, a celebrated racing announcer, who’s impressed enough to set up a match race between the stallion and the country’s fastest thoroughbreds.
The way Ballard presents this movement, he gets us seeing the action as standing for the reintroduction of the independent imagination into the conditions of shared life, and for what has to be gone through in order to present beauty to the world. The suburb’s small houses stand on tiny plots of land; with curbs and intersections, and the noise of cars and families, the area is almost as chopped-up and confining as shipboard. (We have reemerged back into movie conventionality.) The horse, spooked by the sound of garbage being collected, gallops off for someplace freer, cleaner. It passes by a factory, its chimneys spilling pollutants into the air, before finding its way to the countryside — the horse’s reactions are the reactions of our imagination to the congestion of this life. Ballard gets us seeing such passages abstractly: here, as confinement, revulsion, and a blind burst into something more agreeable. We might be observing the workings of glands and valves. Ballard presents the boy’s pursuit of the horse as a lightly-comic variation on B’rer Rabbit, or on Grimm. An ancient man on a cart, smoke, a night spent under the eaves of a run-down warehouse: it’s like a trek through a fairy tale’s scary forest.
This movement takes its tone from the interaction of the characters and actors; they’re the ground the horse stands out against. The boy has a depth and an obstinacy that his now-widowed mother can’t understand and that he can’t explain; he has had to learn guardedness. Teri Garr’s professionalism and pragmatism jibe well with her character’s amazement and disbelief, her realizing how serious the boy is about racing his horse. She’s settled and fleshly; she’s the den mother of this tidy world. She situates us back in the real world after our minutes aloft with the boy and horse.
Henry the horse-trainer comes on mean and defiant — he wants to keep the horse for himself. Snooping around Henry’s barn, the boy finds his way into a dusty old room full of jockey trophies and memorabilia — again, life before he was born: a past, something he’s only beginning to understand. (This scene is a reminder of one in “National Velvet”; Velvet and her mother explore their attic and look over the mother’s old athletic awards.) When Henry sees how well the horse and kid get on, he’s won over and brought out of himself. He understands and adores the horse’s strength and reluctance. He doesn’t want to tame and master it — he and Alec simply try to channel the beast’s energy, to guide it a little. “You don’t have to pump him,” Henry tells Alec about riding the horse flat-out. “Throw it away. He’ll be makin’ that rhythm.”
It’s rainy the night the race announcer visits the track for a demonstration of the horse’s abilities; he doesn’t even emerge from his car when he sees the boy atop the horse. Rooney is wonderful at suggesting his character’s attitude of “I’m not kidding! This is really gonna be something!” We stay with the grown-ups as the horse circles the track. They can’t see the horse, and with them we listen through the rain, the dark, the sounds of windshield wipers and idling car engines, for indications of it. Galloping hoofbeats come out of one direction for a bit, then out of another; these sounds could be the symptoms of an impossible-to-identify condition we carry in ourselves. When Henry pulls Alec off the stallion, the kid is unconscious. What hasn’t been shown has been made visible to us.
The match race itself is a merging of nature poetry and conventional movie form. Without doing anything cerebral or Eisensteinian, Ballard turns the hurtling horses into semi-abstract qualities and forces; they’re all reach and stretch, nostrils, flanks and gulping breaths. As an image of speed and power surging within confines, this passage is in a class with the greatest Futurist paintings. The track is an oval — society has cleared out a space for these demonstrations. The pageantry — all harlequin colors and heraldic music — is like guidelines and directional signals (they go well with the blinders put on the horses); Ballard makes us register the contrast with the shimmying visual rhythms of the island passage. The race is tense. Where the camera rose up and flew over the boy and horse on the island (it seemed to want to include the curvature of the horizon), here it crouches over, down low, at times skimming the dirt beneath the inside fence, which tilts toward the track; the camera wears blinders. At other times it’s wedged between the horses, or sweeping wide behind all of them as they take a curve, the sounds of the crowd driving it along.
This act is full of images and passages that you remember as you might private moments from your own childhood: Teri Garr’s flower-print dresses, earrings, and bewildered face; the trophy room, dusty yet neat; Mickey Rooney using a bale of hay as a horse to teach the boy how to use a saddle; Alec searching through a bureau for something to protect his hands and finding his father’s watches and ties (furniture and its capacity for delight and treachery); Henry and Alec listening to an old, wood-bodied radio.
Part of what’s funny about the film is the boy’s acceptance of the unlikely adventures that befall him. Kelly Reno shows the clarity of the boy’s determination, his wariness and hiddenness, and the openness of his empathy with the horse; he manages to express the tenacity and strength of the boy’s love of the imagination. Alec’s skin seems transparent to us even while we understand that he’s learning how to conceal things from other people.
Mickey Rooney as the mentor is tender and intuitive. As the character he plays is reawakened by the horse and the boy’s love for it, Rooney seems reawakened as an actor. He sets the old trouper/dynamo we know him to be aside, like the character’s crustiness. (Rooney could be making amends for his over-hearty performance in “National Velvet.”) He’s not consciously showing us what he can do; he’s relating simply to a child and a horse. Living totally within the terms of the movie, he brings a respect for the sacred into his performance. As the ex-trainer shows the boy how to ride on a saddle, as he tries to accustom the horse to saddle and reins, he becomes like an acting teacher working with his greatest student; it’s as though he knows that what he’s dealing with is what he himself has always lived for, and that it’s present here before him in its most beautiful incarnation. He gets high on the action too.
The horse itself has movie glamour and the stature of a mythical beast. (Ballard and his horse trainer, Corky Randall, used primarily two horses, but altogether at least fourteen, to create the onscreen horse.) In one shot, the horse stands in its stall looking out at an overcast day, and its profile has the melancholy of Olivier’s Heathcliff. The eloquence of its balkiness — the way its raw talent, danger, and beastliness are barely held in check — is worthy of Brando. But Ballard is scrupulous about not anthropomorphizing the horse; his stallion isn’t a parody of a man, or of a man’s ideas about a horse. As he creates it, the stallion seems to live in connection with unfamiliar dimensions, and with regions of the universe that don’t normally find expression here on earth. When the horse rears in confusion and rage at the beginning of the match race, it makes sense. This is no domesticated creature; this is a special case.
When the whole world has been colonized and categorized, where does mystery remain? Or, at least, how can we manage to see a horse without its being neutered by the images and ideas of “horse” that we already have in our minds? Ballard seems to believe that you get back to a child’s freshness of response only during moments when you’re passing from one state into another — when you’re bewildered, and aren’t really sure what’s going on. In “The Black Stallion” (and in his later ballet film “Nutcracker”), he creates such moments, finding his way back into given forms until they release and permit a free fall. Ballard finds his way to and then works out of those moments when you don’t yet realize what’s happening to you; he works from what is generally considered to be what escapes us.
The three-movement presentation is an expression of this: the conventional movie that this film is at the end is very different — it seems to have been aerated — from the conventional movie it was at the beginning. The section on the island, with its tumbled-up, twinkling feel, is the passage. The clear-eyed apprehension of the world while categories and labels are off: Ballard gives us the illusion on the island that that’s what we’re seeing and hearing. It corresponds to a child’s way of seeing things, to an early man’s, and it corresponds to the force of the horse itself.
The toy horse is the fetish that draws us into and through the movie. The father gives the son a toy horse; the father dies and the toy horse gives rise to a real horse. Guilt and sorrow are built into the toy. The symbol becomes what it symbolizes: toy horse/real horse, child/parent, movie/life. This play with proportion has to do with the way a child (and perhaps a grownup’s imagination) is constantly shifting in relation to the world. Really great toys seem to have built into them the process you go through when you lose yourself in play with them. (Getting this right is what the “Nutcracker” toymaker agonizes over.)
“The Black Stallion” is a fusion of an interest in toys and symbols, and a desire to get back to the pristine. As a filmmaker, Ballard can’t represent anything to us except through technology, yet he seems to feel with his whole soul that man and his instruments are the essential polluters — that the instruments of man’s vision are maybe the original polluters. How can you represent the pristine when the instrument of representation is a despoiler? (Travel writers must worry about this too.) We always come equipped with our concepts, our stories, our technology, and signs. In this movie, Ballard finds his way to the pristine by entering into constructs that we usually picture as the conventional signs of filmmaking for children and treating them as artifacts and symbols, working back through the accumulated pop-culture debris. He feels that this material — which we often feel superior to and often callously manipulate — has grown out of someplace deeper than we tend to admit. He treats conventional forms as the products of processes that reach back into prehistory, into mystery and myth.
Formally, what Ballard has done is to interweave a parable about the birth of one’s awareness of the imagination with the landmarks of a children’s story. As he has made it, the movie is like paintings or poems that have frames built into them as part of the image, the dreamer dreaming himself into existence, the shape of thought encircling and giving birth to the image. In the stallion, Ballard has managed to create in the language of feature films as conscious and potent a symbol as Woolf’s waves or lighthouse, yet the stallion also has a distinctive tumescence, like the pressure of water at a springhead. You’re right there at the instant when the horse chooses to accept a gift of seaweed from the boy, nourishment from beneath the waves.
At the end of the film, after the race, there’s a flashback to the boy romping with the stallion on the island’s beach, but it isn’t a shot we’ve seen before. In it, the boy and horse are at play beneath a spectacular rainbow, and this rainbow — a natural arc suggesting infinity — is the film’s recapitulation. It’s the scimitar shape of calligraphy made real. As the closing credits roll, we see the movie from the outside, but it wears a pulsing, calm flush. We have been given the illusion of entering and moving through a region of pure form and surfacing back into clear waters. In the movies, beauty has never run so rampant or so free.
- The Criterion Blu-Ray of the movie is beautifully done, and includes lots of wonderful extras.
- A visit with Carroll Ballard.
© 1985 by Ray Sawhill