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Black Beauty (1971) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 05 October 2004

Black Beauty
Paramount Home Entertainment
MPAA rating: G
starring: Mark Lester, Walter Slezak
theaterical release year: 1971
DVD release year: 2004
film rating: Two-and-a-Half Stars
sound/picture rating: Three Stars
reviewed by: Abbie Bernstein

The 1971 film version of “Black Beauty” – there have been other versions before and since, including an award-winning TV British TV series in the ‘70s and Caroline Thompson’s excellent 1994 feature – is a very curious adaptation of Anna Sewell’s groundbreaking book. First published in the late 1800s, Sewell’s story about the title horse, told from the horse’s point of view, was notable for being one of the first pieces of literature to seriously plead for people to pay attention to the welfare of domestic animals. While this British film (shot in Ireland and Spain) certainly doesn’t encourage animal cruelty, it misses the point of Sewell’s book. The problem is not so much that it changes around Sewell’s episodic narrative to a great degree, but rather that it treats the equine hero as a four-legged plot device rather than as an actual character.

There’s a sense that we may be in trouble from the very beginning, when Chapter 1’s opening footage of horses frolicking in fields – beautifully captured by ace cinematographer Chris Menges – unspools under music that sounds like something that might be played in an elevator. Things pick up a bit when we meet Joe Evans, played winsomely as a child by Mark Lester (of “Oliver!” fame), a farmer’s son who is present for the birth of a lovely black foal. Joe’s father gives Beauty to him, but their farmland is owned by a squire whose rapacious son takes possession of everything. Fortunately for Black Beauty, the squire’s son proves his own undoing before too long. Some of Beauty’s subsequent owners include an Irish traveler, a European circus troupe, a general’s daughter, a cavalry officer and a vicious collier before Fate steps in.

Where director James Hill and screenwriter Wolf Mankowitz make some odd choices is to become preoccupied in the dramas plaguing the humans in Beauty’s life, so that we wind up with a fair amount of ‘70s-style melodrama that won’t hold the attention of youngsters and is rather antiquated and stylized for us grown-ups. The movie does adhere to the novel’s tacit observations that people who behave badly towards animals tend to also be lousy toward their fellow humans.

Given the film’s 33-year-old age, the print is in very good condition – the color is a bit faded in places but is mostly still very pretty and extremely clean. The two-channel mono sound is pleasingly smooth.

1971’s “Black Beauty” isn’t bad – it’s just dated and uneven, but it has its good points. It can best be recommended to kids who are absolutely crazy about horses and ready for a movie they haven’t seen yet and/or completionist fans of cinematic treatments of Sewell’s novel, which still stands the test of time.

more details
sound format:
English Dolby Digital Two-Channel Mono
aspect ratio(s):
1.85:1, Enhanced for Widescreen TVs
special features: English Subtitles
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 27-inch Toshiba

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