Anna Sewell’s horsey tale has been a staple of movies and tv for decades, since 1877 to be exact. Published under the title Black Beauty: His Grooms and Companions, the Autobiography of a Horse, it’s a story that everyone knows even if few actually crack the spine of such a venerable text. This 1971 version from horror specialists Tigon has been largely forgotten, and seen through the prism of experience, there’s some pretty good reasons for its obscurity. But it’s worth a watch just to see the living hell that was considered family entertainment in the early 1970’s.
Black Beauty re-united talent from 1968’s Oliver, with Mark Lester as Joe, the upstart urchin who is Black Beauty’s first owner, and a score from Lionel Bart, who composed the hit songs in the Dickensian adaptation. The great Chris Menges handles the camera, and the production itself is fairly lavish, with location shoots in Spain and Ireland. The supporting cast includes British tv staple Patrick Mower, and some effort is made to be faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the original text.
The story is boy-meets-horse, boy loses horse, boy is reunited with horse; it’s War Horse, but with a lot less war. Pretty much all of Black Beauty’s owners are horrid, and the mis-treatment of animals is very much to the fore. At one point, Black Beauty even goes full-on Charles Bronson and kills his owner, and in the context of the film, that seems justified. Less acceptable is a military adventure; ‘Let’s have a crack at those w**s!’ exclaims one character in a racist line that may startle today’s audience, with some justification.
Fist-fighting, pneumonia, military brutality, gypsy con-men, animals killing people; if your kids love these elements, they’ll love this version of Black Beauty. Everyone else will be somewhat stunned by the un-family friendly nature of this venture; we don’t need all life’s rough edges removed for today’s youngsters, but this aggressively downbeat treatment is barely suitable for anyone but sadists, who presumably have better things to do with their time.