by Ellen Seiter
Cut, no. 23, Oct. 1980, pp. 1, 38-39
THE BLACK STALLION is a rare kind of feature film: a kid's film with intelligence and high production values that neither patronizes children nor bombards them with moralizing. The fact that these qualities are so rare in children's films indicates the bad deal children usually get as cultural consumers. It also mediates the general lack of concern for children's education, socialization, recreation and day care. Because of the way that child care is relegated to women and specialists and because all adults do not share responsibility for children in the society, activities associated with children are devalued. By extension, this devalues a large part of women's work. The lack of good entertainment for children not only demeans them, it makes the job of child care that much harder. I'm sure that many parents welcome THE BLACK STALLION as a relief from the mindlessness of Saturday morning television and the violence and sex of most current films and prime time television programs.
When THE BLACK STALLION was released, I was heartened by all that I heard about the film. Word of mouth reputation and critical acclaim established it as superior to most children's films. The advertising campaign made THE BLACK STALLION look like an art film: it showed the simple, tasteful design of a pen and ink drawing of a horse’s head in profile, with “Francis Ford Coppola Presents the Black Stallion” in exotic looking calligraphy. In the Chicago newspapers, the film's ad displayed a four star rating from the local critics with the headline, "A Film for All Ages” in bold print across the top. The Variety review reads,
The critical reviews and the film's promotion stress two points: that THE BLACK STALLION is a really high-class animal story and that it should appeal to adults as well as children.
When I saw the film I was struck by its technical excellence, the compelling way that the cinematography, editing and soundtrack are manipulated. THE BLACK STALLION contains stunning nature photography by Caleb Deschanel, imaginative editing by Robert Dalva, and a rich and effective score by Carmine Coppola. The director, Carroll Ballard (Coppola's former UCLA classmate) sustains the narrative interest with little or no dialogue for long portions of the film.
As these qualities of the film faded from my mind, however, I became more and more disturbed by the film's story. Unfortunately, THE BLACK STALLION is not just about a horse. Most of the film concerns a white, middle class, American boy, his introduction to competition and power, and his accession to the world of men. In presenting this world of masculine privilege, THE BLACK STALLION resorts to some pretty ugly ethnic and racial stereotyping, and it completely excludes girls and women from everything which the film valorizes.
The film opens with the title "Off the coast of North Africa, 1946.” Alec Ramsey (played by Kelly Reno) is on a cruise with his father (Hoyt Axton). Also aboard ship is a wild black horse which fascinates the boy. During a shipwreck, the boy, who has been thrown overboard, grabs the horse's rope and is pulled to safety. They are the only survivors of the wreck, stranded on a small deserted island. The boy learns to survive on the island with the horse's assistance and companionship. As the relationship between Alex and the stallion develops, he succeeds in mastering the horse. Throughout the film, Alec is the only person who can ride "the Black." This first part of the film ends with their discovery on the island and return home.
The second part of the film is a pretty straightforward horseracing story. Alec meets former jockey Henry Dailey (Mickey Rooney), who allows the boy to board the horse on his farm. They decide to race "the Black," and with the combination of Henry's skill as a trainer and Alec's fortitude, they are able to prove the stallion's exceptional ability in a national horse race. The first part of the film tells the story of Alec's mastery of nature and his achievement of complete autonomy. The second part is the story of Alec's initiation through physical and psychological ordeals into masculine competition. The horse is the vehicle through which Alec enacts these two male fantasies.
THE BLACK STALLION has been described by many critics as a mystical film. This mysticism derives not only from the symbolism of the black stallion and its association with the wild and the natural. The film is also profoundly mystical about male power. It celebrates the magical world of the exclusively male group: the son's inheritance from the father (passing down wisdom and precious objects from one generation to the next) and the unspoken bonds between men (specifically white men) whose destiny it is to win. The first sequences on the ship establish this. Alec wanders into his father's poker game, which we observe from the boy's point of view. Each man is dressed in a different costume: the American in a Hawaiian shirt, the British gentleman in a vested suit, the Moslem in a veil, the Jew in a black hat, the black African in a caftan. Each man antes up a different valuable object which he slowly withdraws from his pockets or clothing — a knife, a jewel, gold chains, a war medal. The men are silent, controlling their facial expressions, keeping their eyes steady, smoking, and carefully surveying their cards before betting. In a gross stereotype, only the Jew loses his poker playing composure; he pops out his eyes and childishly spills milk on his chin when he sees the large jewel bet by one of the other men. The English gentleman bets the object which is most important for the film, a bronze miniature of a stallion. And it is Alec's father (the other Anglo) who wins everything. In their room that night, Alec's father gives him the statuette of the horse and the knife. The father tells his son a legend about Alexander the Great as a boy, who proved his manhood by having the courage to ride a stallion and was given the horse by his father the king as a reward. The statuette takes on more significance when Alec contemplates it in the dark before he goes to sleep. Seconds before the storm, the figure of the horse seems to rise out of the darkness with an amber light, until a bolt of lightning begins the shipwreck sequence.
Alec first sees the black stallion on board the ship when it is forced into its stall by a group of men in Arab dress. The horse, although blindfolded, harnessed and roped, struggles violently against the men. The horse’s owner, an Arab dressed in black, savagely beats the horse. In a later scene the Arab violently threatens the boy when he finds the boy feeding sugar cubes to the horse. After Alec runs away, the Arab eats the sugar himself, grinning simple-mindedly. When the storm hits and the ship begins to go down, Alec's father remains levelheaded, directing his efforts toward saving his son and helping others. The Arab appears again, brandishing a large knife and stealing Alec's life vest. The father courageously fights him for the life jacket, but just as the father throws it back to Alec, the boy is thrown into the water.
Alec finds himself washed up on the island with the horse and the two objects his father has given him, the knife and the statuette. The knife is to cut the horse loose from its ropes and to make food, shelter and fire. The objects represent the instruments of his initiation into manhood. The statuette serves as a recurring symbol in the film for the power which the father has passed on to the son. Alec's fascination with the miniature, won by his father, parallels his fascination with Henry's racing trophies, which he discovers in a secret room in the second half of the film.
Smoking, card playing, the silent ritual interactions between men, and the importance of objects are used throughout the film to underscore male bonding and significant narrative moments. They also refer to the initial scenes with the father. Henry Dailey plays solitaire during the scene in which he and Alec decide to train "the Black" for racing. When Henry visits his friend Jake (Ed McNamara) at the racetrack, Jake can guess Henry’s plans for the horse without Henry ever saying a word. When the “big shot" racing man arrives with his entourage to watch the horse race at night, he is seen silhouetted in the car filled with smoke from his cigar. In the jockey room before the race, the men smoke and play cards.
Men's watches are significant objects like the knife and statuette. Alec finds his father's watch at home and handles it religiously. The men compare watches at the track to judge the horse's speed; each man's watch proves the Black's exceptional nature. Silence and secrecy are revered; being a man of few words is a sign of wisdom. Henry lectures Alec on the importance of secrecy in their racing endeavors (specifically secrecy from his mother), and asks Alec if he understands. "Don't just say okay," Henry warns. "You've got to know what I mean."
Ethnic and non-white men are separated from this fascinating male world to the extent that, from Alec's point of view, he perceives them as threatening or untrustworthy. Besides the Arab, the cruel first owner of the stallion, and the men in the poker game, the Italian fishermen who find Alec on the island try to trick him into leaving without the horse. The black fruit and vegetable seller, Snoe (played by the late Clarence Muse), admonishes Alec about racing the horse: "You think you know that animal? I get a funny feeling. I feel right now you ouqht to let that horse stay wild, Alec. It's his soul.” The speech is delivered ominously and the shot is held for several seconds while the black man stares at Alex. But nothing ever comes of Snoe's premonition (unless it's the basis for a sequel), and he remains an intimidating and baffling character for Alex and the audience. The jockeys at the race track, many of them Hispanic, are presented as mocking and rivalrous. They do not share the other men's ability to recognize Alec's talent and the Black's greatness.
On the other hand, all of the Anglo men in the film help and support Alex. Henry Dailey donates all his time and skill to the realization of Alec's dream. Jake makes it possible for them to use the racetrack; the radio announcer gives them the publicity; even the "big shot" compliments Alec on his riding and arranges the race.
Alec's mother (Teri Garr) plays no part in the central plot about preparing "the Black" for the race; she is excluded from the all-male world Alec has entered. She can neither help Alec in any way nor really understand his involvement with the horse. The death of her husband is stressed in the dialogue, and she conveys a sense of depressed helplessness. Her worried look and her marginal role are reminiscent of the women in THE GODFATHER films. The film first shows her watching Alec and the horse in the backyard through the kitchen window. In another shot in the kitchen, the mother embraces Alec, who appears taller than she because he is standing on a chair. At the dinner table she hands Alec the carving knife and fork; he is the man of the family now. The mother appears in aprons, in floral print dresses, with a flower in her hair; on the island there were no flowers, only rock, sand and water. She only encounters the horse directly once in the film, when she comes out in the backyard where Alec is sleeping with the horse, to cover him with a blanket. The mother keeps her distance and doesn't seem to comprehend the horse's significance: all she can say is, "You're a very pretty horse."
In contrast to the film's brief sketch of the father, who relates so well to Alex, telling him stories and giving him presents, Alec and his mother have nothing to say to each other, and their interactions are awkward. The mother has a narrative function in the film only as a potential obstacle to the fulfillment of Alec's dream — being able to ride in the big race. But her role is so minor and her character so undeveloped, that the confrontation scene is anti-climactic. Mother and son have such a distant relationship that when Alec finally reveals to her that the "mystery horse" in the newspapers is really "the Black," and that he will ride the horse in the big race, she isn't even listening to him; she's chattering on about something else. When she finally hears him, she responds banally, "You're not supposed to keep secrets from your mother." The mother apparently never suspected anything about Alec's activities since his return home. She capitulates shortly when Alec explains, "I gotta ride."
The mother has only brief scenes. During most of the film's two hours, no women appear on the screen at all. The only other glimpses of women in the film are an hysterical middle-aged woman whom Alec and his father pass in the hall during the shipwreck, a woman in furs sitting in the car next to the "big shot," and a schoolteacher playing the piano while a girl recites the embarrassing poem "Ode to Alec Ramsey" at a school assembly welcoming Alec home (this same girl turns up sitting with the mother at the big race).
The marginality of the mother's role indicates one way that the film presents a fantasy which has strong appeal to children: the fantasy of complete independence. Alec's autonomy, begun on the island, is continued after he returns home. He sits up late at night listening to the radio, goes to movies alone, and runs around with Henry Dailey in the middle of the night. Alec has no responsibilities except to his horse. He never goes to school, needs little sleep, and virtually lives alone. During most of the film, he never even runs into his mother around the house (the only evidence that she's still around is that the house and Alec's clothes are always immaculately clean). A strong component of the film's fantasy becomes independence from the family, life without women (mothers, wives, sisters, daughters) to interfere in the activities of boys and men.
Horses are extremely attractive animals because of the speed, freedom of movement, power and sense of mastery they provide. For girls, horseback riding offers one of the few socially conditioned ways of experiencing these feelings. For these reasons, many girls and women become fascinated by and involved with horses and horseback riding. In THE BLACK STALLION, however, horses belong exclusively to the male world. In an essay, "The Horse: Totem Animal of Male Power," Parker Tyler notes the importance of the bond between a man and his horse as a film convention:
The "powerful horse" convention takes on particular significance in a children's film like THE BLACK STALLION because we are in a time of so much concern about sex role socialization. At a Saturday matinee of the film, I looked around the theater and saw an audience made up almost entirely of girls ranging in age from about four to twelve and their mothers. What kinds of access do girls and women have to the fantasy of THE BLACK STALLION? What does the film offer them and in what way? How can they identify with the film except by either projecting themselves into a male character or identifying with the horse?
The film's racism and sexism cannot be explained by its setting in the past (it's not just old-fashioned) or its adaptation from a book written forty years ago. Walter Farley's novel differs from the book in important ways. All of the racial and ethnic stereotyping in the film, from the poker game to the black man, Snoe, is the screenwriter's creation. At best this racial and ethnic stereotyping indicates lazy filmmaking, a failure of the imagination. At worst, it teaches children to fear and mistrust everyone except white Americans. In the book, Alec is a high school student whose parents are both alive, Henry Dailey has a wife and a job, and both Alec and Henry have responsibilities to their families during the training of "the Black." For boys, the changes in the film version probably make the story a more potent fantasy. For girls, the story becomes even more inaccessible.
THE BLACK STALLION may become a "classic" children's film in the next few years. But children deserve more than high production values. They deserve a better class of story — films which speak to more than the white, male, middle class experience. We must demand better children's films. We must insist on more than THE BLACK STALLION has to offer.
1. "The Black Stallion," Variety, October 17, 1979.
2. Parker Tyler, Sex, Psyche, Etcetera in the Film (Baltimore: Pelican Books, 1969). p. 31.