The year is 1946 and the steamship The Drake is sailing off the coast of North Africa, headed for an English port. On board is Alec (Kelly Reno) who is travelling with his father (Hoyt Axton), a man who cannot resist the lure of gambling so is spending most of the journey in card games, leaving his son to roam the decks to seek adventure. The most he finds is when he hears a commotion up above and goes to investigate, then is surprised to witness a magnificent black stallion (Cass-Olé) panicking as it tries to escape the bonds its masters have it tied with as they force it into a cramped cabin. Alec's heart goes out to the horse, so when he thinks there's nobody else around he takes some sugar lumps and feeds them to the creature, not knowing this act of kindness will resonate in the near future...
Camera expert Carroll Ballard really had his big chance in directing with this film which would shape the rest of his oeuvre for the remainder of his career, his interest in nature and animals prompting him to craft features which would do their best to capture them looking their finest in a variety of stories where the beasts could be shown off while they interacted with the humans who were fascinated by them. The Black Stallion really set the template he would return to in such works as Fly Away Home and Duma, where young people would find a near-spiritual dimension in their bonds with animals, a dimension made all the more deeply felt with Ballard's often exquisite cinematography.
He had worked on various projects associated with the movie brats of the nineteen-seventies, including Star Wars, but it was his association with Francis Ford Coppola which brought him to this project as Coppola as producer believed Ballard was the man with just the right visual sensibility to bring the Walter Farley novel to life. Working from a script with input from Melissa Mathison, who three years later saw her screenplay for E.T. the Extraterrestrial turn into the then-most successful movie of all time, there were similarities as Alec befriends an initially alarmed and even wild creature who then goes on to become his best pal, even taking him flying for the denouement. Well, not quite, but Alec and The Black do zoom through the finale in a manner designed to be exhilarating and uplifting.
Really there were two parts to the plot, the first sees Alec and this horse shipwrecked in a tragedy which kills all on board (we assume) other than them. They both wash up on the shore of a desert island where there's nothing to eat but seaweed (thankfully the boy doesn't consider eating the stallion) and set about forming a connection which eventually has The Black bearing the kid on his back as they gallop through the surf on the beach, possibly the film's most indelible image of the romantic spirit of adventure, and one returned to in the second half. There, they are both saved from the island and return to the United States where Alec is reunited with his mother (Teri Garr, radiating maternal concern but not given much else to work with) and discovers how difficult it is to keep a horse in your back garden.
Here was where the other most important character was introduced, as veteran Mickey Rooney played the retired jockey Henry Dailey in what for him was a restrained, dignified and careful performance which earned him his second Oscar nomination since the sixties (the first was for Breakfast at Tiffany's - no, only joking). In light of the former Andy Hardy's appearance alongside another equine co-star in National Velvet, it was a touching example of cinematic aptness that he should win one of his best roles later in his long career in a film which echoed one of his most-loved movies. Henry persuades Alec to ride The Black in a prestigious race which climaxes the narrative, thereby bringing out the theme of mankind taming nature and raising the question whether that can be a good thing or if it is going against the "purer" activities of coexistence that we watched on the island. Note how the film begins with gambling and ends with it as well, suggesting humanity uses the power of nature for utterly selfish ends, yet that did not cancel out the respect Alec has for the stallion in this handsome, stately experience. Music by Carmine Coppola.