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Black Beauty (1971)

Paramount // G // October 5, 2004
List Price: $14.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted November 4, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The movie

Anna Sewell's classic Black Beauty has an interesting place in the history of literature: written as an eloquent (and ultimately very effective) plea for the humane treatment of animals in an era before there were any laws against animal abuse, when horses were routinely worked to death and subjected to brutal treatment, Black Beauty also became a celebrated children's classic. It's also a devilishly tricky book to adapt to the screen, for a variety of reasons. Most notably, filmmakers have to answer the question of how to deal with the book's talking horses – the subtitle of the book is "The Autobiography of a Horse" – without having the film degenerate into excessive cuteness.

The 1971 live-action version of Black Beauty addresses that question by opting for an approach that's more inspired by Sewell's work than actually based on it. The horses here don't talk, and instead of an exploration of the various ways that human beings relate to their animal cousins, whether with kindness or brutality, the film is basically a picaresque set of adventures with Black Beauty merely forming the connecting element.

The film opens with Black Beauty's birth and life as a young horse, cared for by his devoted young owner, Joe. The opening is quite impressive and educational for young viewers, as the film captures the actual birth of a foal. But circumstances result in Black Beauty being sold, and the main part of the film follows him through a variety of situations: as a carriage horse for an abusive "gentleman," a circus performer, a lady's riding horse, a soldier's horse in India, and a workhorse in a coal mine. As anyone who has read Black Beauty will be aware, this is a considerably more exotic career than the titular horse had in the original book, but the chain of events that brings him to these different places is at least moderately plausible.

What doesn't work so well is how the focus shifts away from Black Beauty himself in the middle of the film. Especially in the sections where Black Beauty is a circus horse and a war horse, he's basically a prop in the background; the story focuses on presenting melodramatic sub-plots involving his owners, whether it's a rival circus owner bent on sabotage or a lovelorn soldier determined to prove his courage. There's a definite sense that the film was written by committee, as these middle sections even take on a different tone than the beginning and ending of the film: the characterizations shift from realistic to caricature, and there's a lot of physical action in the form of fights.

As the film enters its last third, the attention shifts back to Black Beauty, now an aging workhorse who's seen better days. (It's evident that several "horse actors" were used to portray Black Beauty at different stages of his life, and it works quite well.) Here we finally return to the emotional territory that was established in the first third of the film, and the conclusion is nicely done. Maybe it's because I was so fond of the book as a child, but in any case the ending scene with the aged Black Beauty managed to bring a lump to my throat.

How does Black Beauty stand up as a children's film? Very well, I'd say. It has an appealing horse protagonist, and the general structure of "Black Beauty's adventures" will be easy for even fairly young viewers to follow and enjoy. It's not perfect, though: there are several aspects of the film that aren't adequately explained and may confuse children. For instance, early in the film Joe and Black Beauty witness a hunting accident, in which a horse and rider fall and are injured, and the horse has to be shot. While adults will understand that the horse must have broken a leg and that putting it down was the only humane thing to do, this isn't actually explained in any way... and without that context, it does come across as a cruel "horse execution" rather than a humane response to a tragic accident. However, if an adult is there to explain things, this can be a very meaningful scene, as it emphasizes that the accident – and the horse's needless death – was caused by the rider's carelessness and disregard for safety.

There's also a fairly large amount of violence for a G-rated film: enough, in fact, that I'd suggest parents watch Black Beauty with younger children, at least the first time. Most of the violence is in the form of fist-fights and horse whippings, but in the India segment, we get on-screen shootings and stabbings, and one character is rather gruesomely run through with a lance.

The DVD

Video

It's really nice to see a studio treating "family classics" with the same dignity as any other film release. In this instance, Paramount delivers Black Beauty in an attractive transfer that preserves the film's original widescreen aspect ratio (1.85:1); it's anamorphically enhanced.

Black Beauty looks very good, especially considering that it's a 1971 film; I'd say that Paramount did a solid restoration job for its DVD release, judging from the significantly poorer quality of a few frames that slip through here and there during the course of the film. The image is bright and clean, with colors looking vibrant and lifelike; there's none of the brownish tint that's so typical of 1970s films on DVD. Contrast is a tad heavy in darker scenes, but it never gets out of hand, and close-ups show a really lovely level of sharpness and detail. While print flaws and edge enhancement are kept to a minimum, a moderate amount of noise does appear in the image, which is really all that keeps this transfer from getting four stars for video quality.

Audio

The Dolby 2.0 mono soundtrack comes in a notch above average, though it's not as nice as the video transfer. The track overall is clean and clear-sounding, with no distortion or background noise at all. I did find the dialogue to be a bit on the muted side, with music correspondingly too loud in some scenes, but overall it's fine.

Extras

There are no special features on this DVD.

Final thoughts

The 1971 version of Black Beauty is only loosely based on Anna Sewell's classic children's book, but it has quite a bit of charm of its own. While it has enough "scary" moments to be perhaps a bit unnerving for the youngest viewers, the film's story of Black Beauty's colorful adventures is sure to appeal to children while also being entertaining enough for adults to enjoy along with them. On top of that, the DVD boasts an attractive, restored transfer, so Black Beauty gets a solid "recommended" rating.

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