I cannot explain it. My three-year-old son loves a rusted tow truck called “Mater” who backfires when he wakes up and thinks “tractor tippin’s fuuuun.”
My son can sing that brain-worm song about Thomas being the “cheeky one,” and he knows the tune to Dinosaur Train well enough to drown out the DVD when it is playing.
My son has far more toy trucks, planes, and engines than stuffed animals or model livestock. He’s a machinehead with a toy tool box, a bike, a scooter, and an interest in checking their wheels every block or so.
But that boy loves The Black Stallion.
Granted, there is a scene where the Black and Alec travel on a train (one reason Seabiscuit is pulled from its shelf every now and again is the lengthy train tour the horse takes about mid-film). This may have been how my son was hooked to begin. But now, his favorite scene is quite the opposite end of the spectrum from the rattle of the tracks and the Black cross-tied securely in a boxstall on wheels. He loves the part when, after days on the island, watching, waiting, and surviving, Alec finds a way to make friends with the wild black horse with whom he’s found himself stranded.
If it has been a while since you’ve viewed Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece (and it is one), find some way to make time to see this film again. The patience with which the island scenes are filmed is remarkable, particularly in this day and age. The poignancy of the relationship that develops between the young boy, Alec, and the horse that he calls “the Black” is so vibrant, so in the space that you inhabit, it will break your heart at the same time it sets you free.
As an adult, as a horse lover, as an appreciator of fine arts, I can easily pinpoint why it is that I find The Black Stallion so moving—why it is a film I can watch over and over again and still smile and cry at the same parts.
But my son…my son laughs at bad jokes cracked by animated characters. What is it about this movie that makes HIM choose it again and again?
Understandably, we speak less of “a boy and his horse” in today’s society than we did in the days of My Friend Flicka and The Red Pony. We speak less of “a boy and his dog.” We don’t live in the same kind of world we once did. But just because our world doesn’t make the same demands of our young men doesn’t mean that the young men don’t feel residual awareness and responsibility from “harder” times gone by. It doesn’t mean that the way a boy needed a horse or dog fifty years ago doesn’t still live somewhere deep down inside every male child who breathes air on this earth.
I feel I can draw some conclusions from how my son chooses to view The Black Stallion for the hundredth time. We always fast-forward to the moment Alec awakens on the shore of the island, the ocean water lapping at his torn pajamas, the rope from the Black’s halter cut on one end and tied round his waist on the other (the raw violence of the ship scenes is too real and too scary for a child my son’s age). Then, we watch, enraptured, as the camera spools out across beach and rock-face, as Alec and the Black meet, “break bread,” and then “play tag.” My son loves the moment where we in the audience can hear the Black’s lips reaching and missing the piece of seaweed Alec extends as offer of friendship. He wants to know why the horse backs away at first, why he is tentative, perhaps afraid, and even fierce in his insecurity. Then, my son marvels at the way boy and horse become one as the sun sets, rarely touching, and yet one moving with the other as a shell might move across the shore with the gentle swell of the tide.
Of course, that first riding scene adds excitement, anticipation, and then finally, speed, as Alec swings aboard and takes flight through the shallows along the island’s coast. My son always sits very erect during this part of the movie, and he laughs a little when Alec falls with a splash, remarking, “Here comes the Black, he’s turning around to come back and get Alec.”
What does this tell me about my son? That perhaps there is hope that one day he will ride horses alongside his mother? Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know that the Black is so much a “horse” to him…I think my son is enamored of Alec, a young boy he can identify with, who seeks and finds this powerful creature, and determines a way to share in some of that power. Alec is still small, relatively weak, but with the Black on his side, he has strong legs to tow him to shore, sharp hooves to strike down venomous creatures, and speed to outrun the worst of all enemies—loneliness and fear of being left behind for eternity.
The Black is an emblem, a totem, of the will to survive that is no doubt inherent in most humans at birth, or not long after. The Black is a rite of passage, a challenge to the young man to control with forces other than might, and to understand how those skills can be applied elsewhere in life. The Black is a friend, trusting and true, and present beside you even when you’re not sure if anyone else is aware of, or cares about, your struggles.
My son loves The Black Stallion because it makes him feel fast, strong, smart, tenacious, and kind. For an hour or so, he becomes that freckled young boy so at home leaning against the Black’s side or riding on his back. My son grows up, and likes it, a little more every time we see the film.
Fiction that becomes a bit more real and gains just a little more life as the years go by and more people come to appreciate it—it is so worth it. It’s just so worth it.
Rebecca Didier, Senior Editor