Black Beauty Review

Ever since its publication in 1877, Anna Sewell’s novel Black Beauty has been a children’s favourite, so it’s naturally attracted the attention of film-makers. Just to show that they do make them like they used to, the best version is the one directed by Caroline Thompson in 1994. However, this DVD is of the 1971 version, a decent effort and probably second best. (I haven’t seen the 1946 version, but it isn’t rated especially highly. According to the IMDB, there are five other versions, not to mention the 1970s TV series.) James Hill’s take on the story used to be a Sunday teatime standby on television, though it has been shown less often in recent years.

The central character of this film is, of course, the eponymous horse, whose life, and changes from owner to owner, was intended by Sewell to highlight man’s inhumanity to animals. Mark Lester and Walter Slezak, the top-billed humans, are only in the first half of the film. This version doesn’t overcome the episodic structure of the novel: at least twice we have to get to know an entirely new set of characters, which dissipates the film’s emotional impact. We never get any sense of the horse as a "character" in itself, which means that the film doesn’t really hang together. The 1994 version overcame this by having the horse narrate the film (in Alan Cumming’s voice) and didn’t stint on the emotional aspects of the story. (There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when I saw it.) By comparison, the 1971 version tends towards the bland, though it will pass the time amiably enough for children. Chris Menges’s photography is a highlight, going for pastel shades (especially greens) rather than poster colours, with only the reds of hunting jackets standing out.

Incidentally, this film is an example of how BBFC priorities have changed over three decades. Black Beauty carried a U certificate on its cinema release, but now it’s a PG. Why? I suspect it’s due to several “bloodys” from John Nettleton’s reactionary colonel, not to mention his highly un-PC line “I’d love to have another crack at the Wog.”

Metrodome’s DVD is full-frame. On examination, it’s open-matte which is certainly preferable to panning and scanning. The picture would undoubtedly be cropped for cinema showings (estimating by eye, the intended ratio would seem to be 1.85:1) and an anamorphic transfer would have been preferable…though having said that, I doubt much of this film’s intended audience would be likely to object. Owners of widescreen TVs can always zoom the picture to 16:9. As for the print itself, it’s in very good condition: some white specks and minor scratches and minor artefacting, but nothing distracting. The sound is the original mono and perfectly serviceable at that, though Lionel Bart’s rather twee score is given too much prominence at times. There are eighteen chapter stops but unfortunately no subtitles.

Extras are minimal. The trailer (which, unlike the feature, is letterboxed, to 16:9) is a rather pompous and dated effort that tells you most of the plot. (Admittedly you’ll likely know it anyway.) It runs 2:29. The image gallery is a self-navigating affair (backed by that Bart theme again), comprising pages from the press-book, one in Japanese, some black and white behind-the-scenes stills and some colour ones from the film itself. Some of the colour scenes have faded noticeably. The only other item on the disc is a trailer for a forthcoming Metrodome DVD, Help! I’m a Fish! (in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 and 2.0 Stereo, running 2:23).

As a film, Black Beauty might be a little too familiar, not to say old-fashioned (in a good way) for its intended audience, and it’s outclassed by the 1994 remake which is also available on DVD. However, it’s a worthwhile purchase for children, not to mention nostalgic horsey adults. With a RRP of £9.99, it's certainly appropriately priced.

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