The Black Stallion
A wild horse saves a young boy’s life after a terrifying shipwreck and the two become unlikely friends in Carroll Ballard’s cinematic tour de force, adapted from Walter Farley’s classic children’s novel. From the crystalline shores of a deserted island to the green grass and dusty roads of 1940s suburban America, Ballard and director of photography Caleb Deschanel create a film of consistent visual invention and purity, one that also features a winning supporting performance by Mickey Rooney as a retired jockey and a gorgeous score by Carmine Coppola.
In what is for me a rather big surprise, Criterion presents Carroll Ballard’s classic family film The Black Stallion in a brand new Blu-ray edition, preserving the film’s original aspect ratio of about 1.85:1. The dual-layer disc delivers the film in a new 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation, which was sourced from a new 2K restoration made from a 4K scan of the film’s original 35mm negative.
Fox had previously released the film on Blu-ray, although I have yet to see that edition. The general consensus was it wasn’t a very good transfer so I was basically sitting the sidelines (it would have been one of those titles I’d pick up in a $5 bin somewhere if I came across it).
Film grain isn’t rendered as perfectly as I would probably like, with some compression noticeable, particularly in low lit sequences, but on the whole we get a fairly filmic image. The sequences on the beach are all spectacularly beautiful, the best I’ve ever seen them on video, the colours being the most spectacular aspect. The sandy browns of the beaches still manage to look rich and vibrant, as do the greens of the vegetation. But it’s the water and its striking blues that impress. The level of detail in the landscapes during these sequences is also striking, even in long shots, where you can almost make out every detail in the rock ledges.
The rest of the film, which takes place in urban areas and on Mickey Rooney’s former jockey’s farm, maybe aren’t as pretty but the level of detail, delivery of textures, and sense of depth are still just as impressive. Black levels are also strong, and balance is nice. The print is also in terrific shape and other than maybe some mild fluctuations in a few places and some noticeable scratches on the edge of the frame during some of the beach sequences I didn’t notice anything especially glaring. Despite the some issues with compression that is only noticeable here and there, I was quite pleased with the image on the whole.
The film comes with a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 surround track and it manages to surpass my expectations. The film’s score is easily the most impressive aspect to it: it’s loud but adequately mixed, never drowning out anything important (though there is very little dialogue during the beach sequences, where the music gets really active) and is beautifully mixed between the speakers. Range is very good, as demonstrated by the low level hum of the boat that is pretty much always there during the beginning of the film to the crowds cheering during the final race at the end of the film. Dialogue is clean and easy to hear, and the soundtrack on the whole is clean, free of noise and distortion. Like the disc’s image it’s a lovely presentation and perfect for the film.
I’m a little surprised this isn’t a huge, lavish special edition on Criterion’s part, but they still throw on some strong supplemental material, starting with 5 short films directed by The Black Stallion’s director, Carroll Ballard, each with their own introduction. The films included are Pigs! (11-minutes), The Perils of Priscilla (17-minutes), Rodeo (19-minutes), Seems Like Only Yesterday (47-minutes), and Crystallization (11-minutes). All of them are presented in 1080p/24hz. Condition of the prints vary, with Rodeo possibly being in the best shape, and the transfers are decent but display obvious compression issues.
They’re all rather fascinating projects, and all very different from one another. Pigs! simply documents the life of the pigs on a pig farm, following them around, offering very little context and no narration, while Priscilla (made for Pasadena Animal Control) has more of a narrative though is told from the point of view from a house cat that escapes from the family home (after the toddler gets his hands on the poor thing). Rodeo, the first film the director made with cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, is a fairly straightforward documentary that follows bull rider Larry Mahan as he competes at the 1968 National Rodeo Finals. It captures some great bull riding footage, but really seems mare fascinated by everything going on around the stadium, including preparation. It is also beautifully photographed and edited, and the experience obviously helped the two in working with the horse in The Black Stallion.
Yesterday is another fascinating one, Ballard interviewing around a dozen people (including Ballard’s grandfather) who had either reached (or were close to reaching) 100 years, as they reflect on everything they’ve seen in L.A. during that time, which is stunning and incredible when one thinks about it. Ballard edits in footage of rockets going into space just to remind us how much changed in their lives, and really what a short time that is in the grand scheme of things. The final film, Crystallization, is the one full-on educational film, showing the process of crystallization through a special microscope.
Each film then comes with an introduction featuring Ballard and scholar Scott Foundas. In them Ballard just gives a back story to each film, explaining why he did them (some because he needed money, others because they were personal projects) and then offers a couple of stories here and there. Altogether they run about 11-minutes. In all this is a great inclusion on Criterion’s part, and possibly the best aspect to the supplements.
Criterion then follows those films with a surprisingly lengthy 47-minute discussion between director Carroll Ballard and film scholar Scott Foundas, who talk about the film and Ballard’s career. Ballard offers up the rather interesting story behind how he got into film (which I was at least surprised by) and then talks to an extent about his short films (his more detailed talks about each film on this release were of course used as the introductions for said films). From there he goes into great detail about how he got The Black Stallion made, with most thanks going to Francis Ford Coppola, who was very resilient in helping to get the film made. He shares some funny stories from the shoot (his details about the cobra scene are somewhat shocking, but funny, if in a morbid way), and he even explains the reasoning behind shooting the horse mounting scene underwater, which are akin to why Spielberg revealed the shark in Jaws so late in the film (he of course inadvertently created one of the many memorable sequences in the film). He covers the casting of Kelly Reno and the joys of working with seasoned pros like Mickey Rooney and Clarence Muse, and talks about children films and his thoughts on them. He also goes over the reactions of studio execs at United Artists, a new round of them who had no idea the film was even being made (at the screening they apparently thought they were seeing Apocalypse Now), and how studio execs react to the film now (most still think the film was a fluke hit). Though I’m not sure if Foundas offers much to the discussion I enjoyed Ballard’s very frank, fairly laid back offerings, and he provides a wonderful amount of detail about the production.
Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel next talks about shooting the film, comparing the two halves of the film and their respective locations (the first half was shot in Sardinia and Rome, while the second half was filmed in Toronto) though, not surprisingly, talks more about the first half of the film and the difficulties of filming the horse since it could be unpredictable (he learned its tells to figure out what the horse was about to do). It’s a fairly educational feature, with Deschanel explaining everything he learned while making the film, and describing how he best caught certain scenes. I was also rather fascinated to hear from him how disappointed both he and Ballard were with the as they were shooting, both feeling they weren’t getting the desired shots and feared the film would look terrible, which most people would probably disagree with, Deschanel’s wife included according to him. It runs about 21-minutes.
Criterion then includes a short 7-minute gallery/interview over the production photographs taken by photographer Mary Ellen Mark. As the photos are displayed onscreen one at time Mark talks over them, explaining how she came to be brought on to the project and going over the general experience. She also talks about specific photos as they come up, offers a few stories about Mickey Rooney, and then actually gets a little critical of her work at points, seeming to be annoyed by the backgrounds. Far more interesting than a standard photo gallery while also giving a better idea of the duties of an on-set photographer.
The disc then closes with the film’s original theatrical trailer. Criterion also includes one of their road-map inserts, which features an essay by Michael Sragow, who goes over the film’s structure and editing style, while also covering the themes found within it. He also goes over the original novel to a small degree, specifically in how the film and novel differ in the opening: what are actually only 10 pages in the novel take up an hour of the film—Ballard mentions in his interview that the whole section on the beach is only 3-pages in the script).
Sadly, like most Criterion titles as of late, there’s very little in the way of a critical slant to the supplements, with Sragow’s essay coming closest to filling the void. I’m also somewhat stunned by the lack of more details about the novel on which the film is based (again, Sragow offers the most detail on this). But I was fascinated by Ballard’s short films, enjoyed Ballard’s interview, and also enjoyed the technical details by Deschanel and Mark’s reminisces. Despite leaving a bit to be desired I was at least more than pleased with what we get.
Ballard’s gorgeous film gets a rather gorgeous (if unfortunately imperfect) digital presentation along with a fascinating collection of supplements. It could be improved upon in a couple of areas, but for the countless fans of the film I feel safe in saying they will be quite happy with it.