{ FT ERIE FEATURE } Fort Erie racetrack the day of the Prince of Wales stakes, Sunday, July 15, 2012. {Photo by Nick Agro / Buffalo News}



HOLLYWOOD, CA - APRIL 29: Academy Award winning filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola writes his name in cement as TCM honors him with a Hand/Footprint Ceremony at TCL Chinese Theatre IMAX on April 29, 2016 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)


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Don’t take my word for it. That’s the word-for-word assessment of Pauline Kael, the late New Yorker writer who may have been the greatest film critic ever made.

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Take my word for this, though: “The Black Stallion” is the greatest children’s movie ever made in our fair region.


The film opened 40 years ago this week. Much of its glorious first half was filmed in Sardinia and much of its back half was filmed in and around Toronto — but the climactic, edge-of-your-seat closing scenes were filmed a few furlongs from the Peace Bridge at Fort Erie Race Track.


Just as “The Natural” was made at War Memorial Stadium in the 1980s because it could pass for a major league ballpark in the 1930s, so, too, was “The Black Stallion” made at Fort Erie in the summer of 1977 because the picturesque track looked as if it could be set in the 1940s — and, truth to tell, still does.


The film’s mythic tone comes by way of cinematographer Caleb Deschanel, who would work the same sort of cinematic alchemy a few years later — on the other side of the Niagara — when he was cinematographer for, you guessed it, “The Natural.”


That’s a movie Buffalonians know because it marries the grit of War Memorial with the glitz of Hollywood — and the Old Rockpile gets equal billing with Robert Redford. (Well, at least here on the Niagara Frontier.)


But somehow our other local movie classic gets lost in the fog of memory. It shouldn’t. As film critic Michael Sragow put it in a 2015 reappraisal: “The Black Stallion remains more than a rousing adventure — it’s an enchantment.”


If you’ve never seen the movie, or even heard of it, you are in luck. It is available for streaming and there’s a remastered Blu-ray version put out in 2015 by the Criterion Collection that has lots of extras, including an interview with Deschanel. (His daughter Zooey Deschanel — the actress, model and singer-songwriter — would be born three months to the day after the film’s theatrical release.)


If you’d like a taste of “The Black Stallion” just now, here’s the original movie trailer, including some of the scenes from Fort Erie.


Though the eponymous horse is blazingly fast, modern tastes might find the movie a tad slow. Don’t be fooled: Director Carroll Ballard takes Walter Farley’s 1941 children’s novel and elevates the story to the airy realm of modern myth.


Alec is a boy shipwrecked on a deserted island with a wild Arabian stallion in the 1940s. The near-wordless scenes in which boy and horse come to know one another — tentatively at first, intimately at length — are “so gloriously breathtaking,” in the estimation of Roger Ebert, as to make the film’s second half seem merely routine.


“We’ve seen the second half before — the story of the kid, the horse, the veteran trainer, and the big race,” Ebert wrote in his 1979 review. “But the first hour of this movie belongs among the great filmgoing experiences.”


Ebert references “scenes shot around an old racetrack in Toronto,” but that’s only half right. Yes, some of the racing scenes were shot at Woodbine, but the crowning match race was in fact filmed at Fort Erie.


And Sragow appreciates the film’s stirring climax more than Ebert did: “The climactic race of The Black Stallion carries an uncommon resonance. … Ballard’s film doesn’t succumb to race-of-the century fever. It stays focused on the boy, the horse, and their dream of freedom.”


The movie opened on Oct. 17, 1979, and critics lapped it up. Audiences did, too — it was made for under $4 million and grossed roughly $38 million. Sragow’s essay notes that it “quickly became a legend, playing like gangbusters when it spread cross-country that winter. Indeed, watching it with a ‘hushed, attentive audience’ at an actual Saturday matinee inspired Pauline Kael to make the famous remark, ‘There may be a separate God for movies, at that.’ ”


Francis Ford Coppola was executive producer and his father, Carmine, composed the film’s evocative score. Mickey Rooney earned an Oscar nomination for his role as the wily trainer, itself a callback to his role as an ex-jockey in 1942’s “National Velvet.” And screenwriter Melissa Mathison would go on to write “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.”


But for all that constellation of talent, none of this works without horse and boy. Cass Ole, a Texas-bred Arabian stallion, played the title character, with three other horses filling in at times. Kelly Reno was 11 when filming began and already an accomplished rider for having grown up on a Colorado ranch. He plays Alec, in Sragow’s words, as “an ideal everyboy.”


So how come a movie made in 1977 didn’t reach theaters until 1979? Turns out studio executives put it on the shelf because they didn’t understand what they had. “The Black Stallion” might never have reached theaters had not Coppola exerted his Godfatherly clout.


Ballard later told the tale of one befuddled exec asking: “What is this, some kind of art film for kids?”


Well, yes, in a way, but that’s too limiting. From the sands of Sardinia to the dirt track of Fort Erie, it’s an epic for the ages — and all ages.

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