Carroll Ballard is not a household name, at least not outside of those households where the residents gripe about what a better world we'd live in now if Star Wars had flopped and William Friedkin's Sorcerer had been the biggest movie of 1977. (I've spent some time in those those households, and I don't recommend it.) Ballard emerged from UCLA around the same time as Francis Ford Coppola in the late 1960s, and is associated with Coppola and George Lucas, though Mr. Ballard denies being part of what 's often called the “Movie Brat” generation. And he does have a Star Wars connection, having shot second-unit on the original film, including being behind the camera for the long shots of Luke's speeder zooming along Tatooine.
While he was in Death Valley working on his pal George's silly little space movie, Ballard was likely already planning what would be his first and most successful feature film, 1979's The Black Stallion, which the Criterion Collection is releasing on Blu-Ray this week. It's long overdue — dumb stupid HD technology, not becoming feasible for consumer film distribution until this past decade! — since the first hour of The Black Stallion demands to be seen in the highest definition possible.
All of The Black Stallion is terrific, but the first hour is in a class by itself, the story of a young boy (Kelly Reno) who survives a shipwreck with the aid the stallion of the title. Just the sequence of the ship being destroyed in the storm is an exemplar of pre-CGI effects work, but the time the boy and the horse spend on an island before being rescued is also gorgeous in its own right, a sequence of pure cinema language.
After they're rescued, The Black Stallion becomes a more conventional horse-racing story; it's equally well-made, but it can't help but be more pedestrian at the same time, encumbered as it necessarily is by plot. Sometimes, plot can get in the way of storytelling.
The Blu-ray also contains five of Mr. Ballard's early short films, which are almost worth the price of admission right there. Hopefully, Criterion will continue making their way through his sparse catalog. He's only made five more narrative films since The Black Stallion in 1979 — four if you count his 1986 film of the Nutcracker ballet, which I do not — and my personal favorite was his very next film, the Alaska-set Never Cry Wolf, based on Farley Mowat's memoir. (I grew up in a Farley Mowat-loving household, thankfully.)
But for now, getting The Black Stallion on Blu-Ray is a like a big, tasty cinematic sugar cube, and it should be savored.