If you’ve never seen this film, do so, for it will teach you something plain about the wild or the traumatized, human or not. I saw the film when it first came out, in 1979 when I was a newly emigrated child, feeling like child actor Kelly Reno looked in this film: dumbstruck and wide-eyed, trying to adjust to a new life. It’s not clear in the story where Reno’s character, Alec, and his father are going on their story-opening sea cruise, only that the boy is lonely and quiet, the father garrulous yet preoccupied with gambling on a ship that seems less-than-family friendly. A collector, drifter (possibly a grifter), and storyteller, he gives Alec a tiny model of an exotic black horse, foreshadowing the subsequent attachment, but he is implicitly neglectful. He seems less so when a storm hits and the smallish trawler is threatened with a wreck. By this time, Alec has become enamored of the eponymous wild horse, being kept in storage on a lower deck of the ship, cruelly mistreated by its Arab owners. As the ship capsizes Alec is thrown overboard, though not before freeing the animal from its restraints. Meanwhile, his father is missing, having tried but failed to secure a lifeboat. Treading water, Alec sees the horse flailing through the waves but managing to swim, so he latches on to the severed restraint ropes and is thereafter pulled to safety.
Sometime later Alec wakes up on a deserted island beach, apparently safe but also marooned. He sees the horse at a distance, and in spurts over what may have been days, possibly weeks. The animal appears watchful but wary. If Alec approaches, the horse gallops away with impressive speed, seemingly frightened, and distrustful of humanity, naturally, if not from life experience. However, when Alec is threatened by a snake, the horse appears out of nowhere and stomps upon the serpent, killing it. Alec, determined to make a friend of the horse, persists with his approaches, offering leafy snacks and coaxing the beast towards him. Finally, in an intimate scene, the two make contact on the beach. Alec steps forward and then stops, withdraws, then approaches again. The horse, likewise coy, does the same. After a few minutes of this sequence, remarkably filmed, they inch closer and finally touch. The scene feels like an attachment drama played out. It seems fanciful to compare this dance to that which happens between me and a reluctant client, but what can I say. I am reminded.
Soon the boy is riding bare-back on the horse as it gallops across beach-kissing waves. The cinematography that captures this is iconic. Later, Alec is discovered by fisherman and ostensibly rescued, though the fishermen misunderstand about the horse. The bond between boy and animal is conveyed as the horse wades into the water, following the boat which might have left him behind, despite Alec’s beseeching protests. The scene of the horse chasing the fishing boat, determined to follow Alec, is one of the most beautiful in cinema, climaxing as it does the film’s better first half. Back home Alec is welcomed as a Robinson Crusoe-like hero (we learn his father was killed in the wreck). Black, as Alec nicknames or christens the horse, is temporarily kept near his and his mother’s rural home, but he runs away from this strange western domesticity, wild as ever. Incorrigibly so, says Henry, a retired racehorse jockey played by Mickey Rooney, who has found and caught the horse. With Henry’s help, Alec learns to tame the animal, but recalling Black’s speed on the island beach, he convinces the former jockey to train both he and Black for the racetrack. To do this, Henry and Alec must also persuade Alec’s widowed mother that their plan is worthwhile, and above all, safe. As the mother, Teri Garr plays a similar role to the one she’d played in Close Encounters two years earlier. Irritable yet sympathetic, jaded by masculine risk-taking but ultimately forced to indulge it, she is a bystander witnessing a compulsion. This comparatively predictable second half leads to a climactic match race at a professional event before thousands of spectators.
While the outcome might be foreseeable the execution of this footage is anything but. Without stirring music, and with minimal dialogue, the race finale recalls the earlier scenes on the beach while the soundtrack re-enters the silent bond between rider and horse, adding only the vivid sounds of hooves thundering against a sandy track. Black initially falters, disturbed by the racing protocols—the entrapment of the “gate”—but once in his stride, instinct and power takes over. And this is what sententious art has to say about trauma: our native selves will prevail. Over several laps Black bridges the gap between himself and his rivals. As he passes them and victoriously sprints across the line, the exultation of the crowd is finally heard, returning from a dim background. It is as if the director were finally letting them, and the viewer, share in this moment.
Check out The Black Stallion. Be reminded of something.