“The Black Stallion,” embodies every horse crazy girl’s dream, which is to be stranded on a totally deserted, but highly photogenic island (not a beer can or cigarette butt anywhere) with a wild horse, who becomes tame through a mutual life-saving effort and having no one else to rely on. Then, once you return to civilization, you get to train the horse to compete in a race, and not just any race, but The Match Race of All Time. That’s why it’s a little odd, if you don’t know that the movie is based on a series of books by Walter Farley (which I believe his son later took over writing), that the young hero, Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) is a boy. But it doesn’t really matter, given that 95 percent of horse movies star a young actress.
This movie opens on a ship chugging its lone way across an unnamed body of water, but some hints are given when a group of Arab passengers come on board, leading a wild black stallion who mainly rears and screams as they attempt to manhandle him into his accommodations. Kelly soon notices the commotion and attempts to bond with the horse by leaving it sugar cubes when no one’s looking. It’s never really explained why mom (Teri Garr) isn’t on the trip, too, but it’s just Kelly and his dad (Hoyt Axton), and we see the dad for only a scene where he brings his poker game winnings back to their cabin and winds up giving Kelly two gifts that come in handy – a pocket knife and a little figurine of an Arab horse.
That night, there is a fire, and the crew and passengers are forced to evacuate. Kelly manages to wash up on the aforementioned desert island, and he soon discovers that “The Black” (originality is not his strong point when it comes to naming things) is also a “prisoner” of sorts there. Eventually, rescue comes, and the Black briefly takes up residence in Kelly’s suburban backyard (where the mom emerges at one point and informs the horse she wishes he could have saved her husband, too) Perhaps to get away from this guilt trip, or more probably because he’s startled by the morning garbage truck, the Black jumps the fence and takes off. Fortunately, he winds up heading for Mickey Rooney’s barn, where when Kelly comes in search of him, is happy munching hay in a stall and decides to move in permanently.
Rooney had a long and distinguished career appearing in quite a few horse movies I saw as a kid, including “National Velvet.” Here he trains Kelly to race, as well as the Black, though the horse’s only real obstacle is accepting a bridle and saddle (so superfluous after he’s been galloped over the sand dunes bareback). At the same time, there is a big match race being arranged between a champion racer in the East and one on the West Coast, and with the aid of a local journalist, they manage to get the Black entered, too as a (literal) dark horse. The jockeys of the two, when they finally meet, are surprisingly affable to each other and share snickers when they see the pint-sized Kelly and the out-of-control Black against whom they are to compete.
This movie, which went on to spawn a sequel (in which Kelly and the Black travel to the Middle East) and a TV series that was on for approximately a few seconds, has a traditional ending which doesn’t really need to be revealed here. But it’s probably safe to say that the movie fueled many a horse lover’s fantasy, which was rudely shattered if they actually began riding lessons and found that it’s actually work to master the art of equitation. Still, if they did stick with it, it was likely they eventually found some of that joy so evident in the relationship between this boy and his horse.