Once Again, With More Feeling: The Black Stallion Returns

Although The Black Stallion is a great favorite among horse people, its sequel, The Black Stallion Returns, is much more of a horse person’s film. The first is all about the art, with its endless beach sequence and its soaring score and its beautiful cinematography. Commenters here and on Twitter have observed that it’s a love story between a boy and his horse, but a lot of that gets lost in the Vision of the Auteur.

The sequel is less consciously artistic and therefore, I suppose, less of a Great Film, but the love story sits squarely in center stage.

It’s a straightforward adventure about a boy and a mysterious desert stallion who won a famous match race, the Moroccan Sheikh who comes to repossess the horse, and of course, this being a Black Stallion adventure, a thrilling race. There’s a villain who wants to either steal or harm the horse, a strong-willed young woman who tries to ride him, and some solid buddy-movie fare, between the rival tribesman who becomes young Alec Ramsey’s friend, and the grizzled Berber warrior who in some ways is the real (human) hero of the story.

Every step and every scene is about who really owns the horse: the man who bred him and hung the hopes of his kingdom on him, or the boy who loves him and is loved in return. The villains who want to destroy the Sheikh don’t care if the horse lives or dies—that’s the true measure of their villainy. Their leader sets the Ramseys’ barn afire with the horse in it, partly out of revenge after the horse attacks him and partly out of expediency. Any means to an end is his guiding principle.

Alec’s love for the Black literally knows no bounds. After the barn fire, when the Sheikh and his granddaughter abduct the Black and carry him off to their ship, Alec latches on to the back of their trailer and rides with his horse to the port. He’s caught there and tied up until the ship sails, but escapes and stows away on a truly awesome seaplane, the Pan Am Clipper.

Once he’s in Casablanca, caught again and about to be shipped home to his mother, he allies himself with a group of local boys who help him find out where the Black has gone. He hitches a ride with the villain, the evil and dishonorable Kurr, and is abandoned in the desert.

By then he knows more or less where the Black is, and he keeps on trekking. The kindness of strangers helps him survive, until he is taken in hand by young Raj. Raj speaks English and is on his way home from university—as Alec eventually finds out, to ride in the race for which the Black has been bred. It happens every five years, and its winner takes all his opponents’ horses. Those are high stakes, as high as it gets among the desert people.

Raj is a reluctant mentor, bound to Alec by the laws of desert hospitality until they come as close to the Sheikh’s lands as Raj dares to go. Then Alec strikes off on his own again, and again claims guest right in the Sheikh’s house.

The Sheikh is even more reluctant than Raj, and he is not about to give up the horse. The horse makes abundantly clear where his own loyalties lie. Alec is obviously his person; equally obviously, and very clearly, he introduces Alec to his herd of mares and especially to the beautiful grey mare who is his favorite. She, in the way of mares, lets him dally for a bit with his human, but then she calls him back to his real duties and obligations.

Alec persists in stating that “This is my horse.” He clashes with the Sheikh’s granddaughter, who will be riding the Black in the race but isn’t quite as obstinate as her grandfather. She approaches Alec in secret to ask for his help, because she has to ride the Black; her tribe needs that win. Alec grudgingly agrees.

The Black does not. Before he can be won over, if that’s possible, Kurr and his minions come raiding, and she does the sensible thing. She throws Alec up on the Black and tells him to get out of there.

He tries, but gets captured and separated from the Black. But! All is not lost! He whistles to the Black, who breaks down the gate of his prison and carries Alec off, back to the granddaughter and the Sheikh. And then the old man admits defeat, on one condition: He’ll give the Black to Alec… if he wins the race.

And of course Alec does, with Raj’s help; he returns the favor and the friendship by asking the Sheikh to spare Raj’s horse (and all the rest of the tribe’s horses as well), which is a huge gift and concession, but well deserved. In the end, the Black belongs to Alec.

Alec, having finally learned the inspirational-poster lesson about love that has been building up since the beginning of the film, sets the Black free. He belongs here in the desert with his mares, making baby Blacks. But, “Maybe I’ll be back,” says Alec, as the Black gallops off across the desert.

(In the books, the Black of course comes back to the US and makes lots of babies and stars in an entire series. But this is a good end to a much more limited series of films.)

The film has problems. It’s vintage 1983, the same era as Raiders of the Lost Ark and its sequels, and the orientalism is a bit painful to watch. Nobody associated with the film spent any serious time learning anything about actual North African tribes, and the naming conventions are a whole lot of W T actual F. In my head I kept calling the villainous Uruk the Fighting Uruk-hai, and what on earth kind of names are Kurr and Wadi Draa? Not to mention that Raj seems to have wandered in from India by way of someone mishearing the name of Lawrence of Arabia’s friend and protégé Farraj.

However. That’s no worse than the usual run of bestselling-fantasy-novel names and cultural mashups. The film is a fantasy, after all. It’s set in movie-1947, in the movie-Sahara, with movie-brown people. Played, in movie tradition, by Italians and USians, with actual North Africans mostly serving as extras and non- or minimally speaking featured players.

I made myself set these reservations aside, considering the age of the film and the fact that I was watching it as a horse movie. In that respect it’s one of the best I’ve seen. I want to thank Beth Cato for mentioning it to me on Twitter, and agree with her that it’s far better (in horse-movie terms) than its prequel.

For one thing, the horse details don’t include any real howlers. I winced at how badly Alec rode that poor camel (kicking it constantly and hauling its head up to its neck), but there’s a lot of good horse riding and some useful cautionary sequences. It never pays to have a short fuse with a difficult horse, as the Sheikh’s granddaughter learns all too quickly.

And that’s another thing. There’s a very mild bit of “Oh, how surprising, the veiled best-rider-in-the-tribe is a girl!”, but that’s as far as it goes. Alec doesn’t call her out based on that, at all. The whole point in his world is that the Black is his horse; that he’s the one rider destined for the great horse. He doesn’t care if she’s male, female, both, or neither.

She doesn’t make any noise about it, either, though I appreciated the subtle touch when she knocks on Alec’s bedroom door and asks to talk to him. He courteously invites her in. She equally courteously and without a word lets him know that’s not the done thing, and out they go to try to get the Black to accept her as his rider. Alec doesn’t make any noise about her getting hurt, either, any more than he would if she were, say, Raj. I like that.

Best of all is the deep and visible bond between Alec and the Black. Kelly Reno and the beautiful Cass-Olé had great chemistry; above and beyond the writing and editing, it makes the movie.

It seems like a fantasy, to tell the story of a horse who will only tolerate a single rider. For the most part, horses either don’t care or just care that the rider makes at least a token effort to ride them properly. They’re good with whatever as long as they’re not mistreated.

The aphorism the film keeps coming back to is that “every great horse has only one rider.” The emphasis being on great, and specifically on the pinnacle of the Sheikh’s breeding program, the Black (or “Shetan” as he’s called at home). Alec is the rider the Black has chosen. He will have no other.

When I read the Black Stallion books I thought that was a lovely dream. I didn’t think it was necessarily true. Then I leased an Egyptian Arabian, and discovered that some horses, and especially some highly bred and sensitive Arabians, really do bond to one rider. The scene in the film when the Black tosses the girl—oh yeah. I was the rider who didn’t get tossed.

And then after we parted company—like Alec, I had to let him go—I had years of riding horses who just wanted to be ridden right, until another came along. Not an Arabian this time, but a horse of another breed famous for bonding closely with a single rider (and inspiration for Anne McCaffrey’s dragons and their riders). I did try to share him, I really did, but he made it all too clear that as far as His Back was concerned, I was the only human allowed on it.

He’s not as ferociously averse to other human contact as the Black, which is in his favor. Anyone can worship him from the ground, photograph him, feed him treats from a specific list (no apples; he hates apples). Just don’t try to tell him what to do. And don’t ever try to get on his back.

Why, yes, I am Alec, and my White Stallion totally gets the Black, right up to and including the lesson Alec learns at the end. No matter how much a horse may love a human, even a single chosen human, when it comes time for the real choice, he’ll choose his mares and his herd.

That’s as it should be. A horse is a horse first and always. Humans are privileged to enter their world, but it’s always on the horse’s terms.

Judith Tarr is a lifelong horse person. She supports her habit by writing works of fantasy and science fiction as well as historical novels, many of which have been published as ebooks by Book View Cafe. She’s even written a primer for writers who want to write about horses: Writing Horses: The Fine Art of Getting It Right. Her most recent novel, Dragons in the Earth, features a herd of magical horses, and her space opera, Forgotten Suns, features both terrestrial horses and an alien horselike species (and space whales!). She lives near Tucson, Arizona with a herd of Lipizzans, a clowder of cats, and a blue-eyed dog.

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