FILM : 'The Black Stallion': A Heart-Whinnying Tale

Mark Chalon Smith is a free-lance writer who regularly covers film for The Times Orange County Edition.

The beauty of "The Black Stallion," the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola-Carroll Ballard adaptation of Walter Farley's children's book, comes from its elegant vision, both literally and figuratively.

This movie about a quiet, self-contained boy (Alec, played by the unaffected Kelly Reno) and a glorious Arabian horse features some of the most magnificent cinematography (Caleb Deschanel at his best) shot in recent years, and revels in a purity of spirit that can be irresistible. (The film will screen Friday night in the Golden West College amphitheater as part of the campus's family film series.)

You can forgive the film's second half and its bowing to the push-button emotions of Hollywood; the first half of "The Black Stallion," is so graceful it approaches the essence of a wonderful dream.

Maybe that's gushing, but the relationship that develops between Alec and the horse after they've been shipwrecked on a deserted island, and the sensitive way it's all shot, is like a communion of sorts. This is a love story.

Executive producer Coppola showed his cleverness by bringing in Ballard as director and Deschanel as cinematographer. Ballard's touch in the early stages is as light as sand blowing on the beach. As for Deschanel, he offers up the island as a feral wonderland where nature and a little companionship are the only things you really need.

Watching Alec and the stallion (filmed here like some superhorse, all vaulting muscle, sinew and pride) is bracing and amusing. They beguile each other, the horse running wildly on the shore, the boy talking to it the way people talk to a special pet. Even the seemingly contrived moments (true to Farley's novel, by the way), as when the stallion saves Alec from a cobra, are all in step with the fairy-tale vision.

Unfortunately, the spell is broken later on, after they're rescued and taken back to Alec's hometown. The story then centers on "the big race" (it becomes something of a "National Velvet" for boys) as Alec and Mickey Rooney as an expert trainer whip the stallion into shape. Ballard is guilty of forgetting the tone he so carefully crafted in the beginning, and emotions tend to be inflated, whereas before they were so natural and quiet.

That's not to say the second half is without value. The bond between Alec and Rooney's character is affecting, as is the performance of Teri Garr as Alec's constantly bemused mother. And with its pounding energy, the race does get you worked up.

But "The Black Stallion," at least in my mind, is really all about that island, a sheltering place where love is the purest enchantment.

What: Francis Ford Coppola and Carroll Ballard's "The Black Stallion."

When: Friday, Aug. 23. The movie starts at dusk; get there by 8 p.m.

Where: Golden West College amphitheater, 15744 Golden West St., Huntington Beach.

Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Golden West Street and head west. Go south on McFadden Avenue to Gothard Street and head west. Enter the Center Street parking lot next to the campus.

Wherewithal: $1.50 and $2.

Where to Call: (714) 891-3391.

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