Joe (Mark Lester) is looking forward to the birth of a foal, for the animal has been promised to him by his farmer father, and so when it is time for the horse in question to give birth, he leads her into the stable and holds a vigil to make sure all goes well. It does, and soon boy and horse are playing in the fields, Joe giving him the name Black Beauty because of his colouring, aside from the white blaze on his forehead, but he’s aware that such beasts are not always well treated, particularly when he witnesses the effect a hunt can have on them. One such instance sees the son (Patrick Mower) of the squire drive a horse he is riding to death, making up Joe’s mind that Beauty will have no part of that activity. But he cannot protect him forever…
Anna Sewell’s classic novel of pleading for better treatment of horses Black Beauty was a success almost from its first publication, tapping into a growing sense of injustice that animal cruelty was just not to be tolerated in a civilised society, as the Victorians were believing they were. Sadly, she never got to enjoy that success as she passed away not long after her sole novel’s release, but her legacy lives on, with seemingly every generation since movies were invented getting their own version to enjoy, or not if you were a stickler for the original plot that too often was loosely adapted to some fans’ chagrin. That was the case here, but it did at least pave the way for a television series in 1972 which was a worldwide hit, especially among horse aficionados.
Though how much of that was down to the horse and how much of that was down to Dennis King’s classic theme tune Galloping Home was up for debate: as Alan Partridge rightly observed, that music was “fantastic” and could have elevated just about any drama, indeed this episodic version of the Sewell novel was lacking something of that calibre on the soundtrack. What it did open with was an instrumental tune written by Lionel Bart, who had given child star Lester his most famous role in Oliver! a few years before; you could sing the words “Black Beauty!” along with it, but that was about it, not his finest work. Lester wasn’t actually seen much beyond the twenty minute mark here, as the screenwriters took to creating a succession of owners of the titular horse.
This was a production from British independent Tigon, led by Tony Tenser whose name was more synonymous with the lurid in national cinema of the sixties and seventies, he was in the business to make money, not art, which made it odd to see his name on the credits of a family film. It was their rivals Amicus who made the portmanteau chillers, compilations of shocking tales where they saved money by hiring stars for a short amount of time then stringing the results together, and that appeared to be the approach with this. Not that it had a huge celebrity anywhere to be seen, but Walter Slezak playing a circus owner or the tragically short-lived Spaghetti Western actor Peter Lee Lawrence would lend a certain cachet to the proceedings thanks to their recognition factor for various markets.
Another producer you may not be too surprised to see had a hand in this Black Beauty was Harry Alan Towers, since he was often to be seen backing (and scripting, for that matter) thrifty adaptations of public domain novels – he had just come off renditions of Dorian Gray and Treasure Island when this was shot. That also explains the presence of his wife Maria Rohm in the cast, a fixture of his movies for a while until her early retirement, here playing the love interest to Lawrence who asks for her hand in marriage but is turned down by her bigoted military man father so sets off to war on the Continent. What does that have to do with horses? Not much, though he thoughtfully takes Beauty with him and he becomes a war hero, so there’s that. The lead horse was played by Hollywood creature Ott, one of the best in the business yet here not exhibiting much personality, simply buffeted along by fate, a less than dynamic set of plots for the supposed protagonist. It was fair enough, but uninspiring.