Based on Walter Farley’s 1941 novel, The Black Stallion depicts the story of two shipwreck survivors, an American boy (Alec Ramsey) and the Arabian stallion (‘The Black’), who saves his life. It was produced in 1979 by American Zoetrope and directed by Carroll Ballard, and made $40 million at the box office.
Leading film critic Pauline Kael said it was “maybe the greatest children’s movie ever made”. It appealed to adults as well as to young audiences and was selected for the US National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.
The boy was played by 11-year-old Kelly Reno, a rancher’s son from Boulder, Colorado. He had never acted before but he could ride and did all his own action scenes in the movie, except for when he had to gallop a thoroughbred. “I was too small to hold him back,” he recalls. He learnt to ride bareback, do high-speed horse falls and swim.
It was the scenes involving water that he found the most challenging. The shipwreck took three weeks to shoot in a mammoth tank at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. “There was wind, rain, fire and smoke and it was all filmed at night,” recalls Reno. “I spent a lot of time in the tank, not being able to touch the bottom, while they made waves that came far over my head and a realistic-looking ship was being burned in the background – it was all very harrowing.”
SHIPWRECK TRIVIA: An old growling toilet at the editing location was recorded to create the sounds of the sinking ship!
These days few people remember the actor Kelly Reno, but many can recall the name of ‘The Black’, the 10-year-old Arabian stallion who became a much-loved pin-up for horse lovers around the world. Cass-Olé (by Al-Marah Cassanova out of La Bahia), was a former show horse from San Antonio excelling in Arabian western and English pleasure classes and in side-saddle events. In the mid-1970s he had been named the American Horse Show Association’s Horse of the Year for all breeds. (Surprisingly he was not the producers’ first choice, they had wanted the Egyptian racehorse El Mokhtar for the title role, but his owners wouldn’t negotiate. In 1983 they eventually relented and El Mokhtar was one of three Arabian stallions, including Cass-Olé, representing the hero in The Black Stallion Returns.)
In the 1979 movie, four main horses were used to portray ‘The Black’. As well as Cass-Olé, there was his double, Fae Jur, and two chestnut Quarter Horses, Star and Junior, supplied by the Randall family. These, of course, had to be dyed, as did parts of Cass-Olé who naturally had four white socks and a star. During filming he also wore an artificial mane that was woven into his real hair by Paul LeBlanc, his personal hairdresser, whose other clients included Susan Sarandon and Sharon Stone.