Good Places, Make Good Horses
Black Beauty (1994), directed by Carol Thompson is a film adaption of the 1877 Anna Sewell children’s novel of the same name. The film follows the life of Victorian black stallion Black Beauty and his companions after he leaves his idyllic first home to serve new owners both kind and cruel. This passing from owner to owner often creates intense and emotional scenes that the horses meet with comedy, heroism and heartbreak. The film is autobiographical and narrated by Black Beauty, showing the audience life from a horse’s point of view. Using this style of narration the film focuses on the treatment of horse’s, their interaction with humans and includes a moral message; which emphasizes the importance of animal rights. The film is shot in an episodic and chronological style, keeping the story simple for a young audience and developing a new point with each of Beauty’s new owners.
Black Beauty; A Children’s Film?
Black Beauty, rated a U and adapted from a children’s novel comes under the genre of children’s film. Whilst the enjoyment of film genre comes from a films balance of conforming to and also stretching generic expectations, something that Black Beauty does with great effect, some of the characteristics one can safely associate with the genre of children’s film are:
- They are simple stories that ‘teach a lesson or moral, or show that good can triumph over evil’ .
- Black Beauty has a consistent moral lesson about kindness to animals.
- Animals are often central in children’s films, with animals having ‘human characteristics – such as the ability to speak. ’
- Black Beauty, speaks like a human and is the center of the film.
- Friendships are often cultivated in children’s films between animals and humans.
- As portrayed in the first line of Black Beauty ‘the story of my life is the story of the people in it.’
- Children’s films ‘do not include topics or scenes with violence ’
- Here Black Beauty stretches the generic expectations as there are bleak scenes of animal cruelty.
‘Animal imagery does not merely reflect animal-human relations and the position of animals in human culture, but is also used to change them’ – The presence of animals in Black Beauty
By narrating from the horse’s point of view, not only does the film stay close to Sewell’s novel, but the moral message; in it’s simplest terms to be kind to animals we work with, is enforced. Through this narration we view the action through the horse’s eyes. As well being narrated via human voices, the horses featured all have human characteristics, such as Ginger being described as having a ‘temper’ and Merry as ‘jolly’. By using anthropomorphism the horses are presented as individual, distinct characters, with the same feeling and emotions as humans. This connects us to the plot and makes the characters easier to identify with. Likewise the generic expectation of animals as central to a children’s film is re enforced as we only get to experience interior thoughts and feelings from Black Beauty. As Burt argues in Animals in film ’, Animal imagery does not merely reflect human – animal relations, but changes them’. By viewing the story and interaction from a horses point of view, the cruelty towards horses becomes more real and therefore incites the need in viewers to become passionate about changing it.
As discussed, a common concept used in children’s films is the centering of a story upon an animal. As well as Black Beauty’s autobiographical narration, the way the film is shot plays a large part in supporting this expectation and enforcing the audience’s identification with the animals shown in the film. The film has focused shots of the horses from the start, with only fleeting glimpses of the human characters. There are long shots of the horses running wild in the field, without saddles and often rearing up in joy interspersed throughout the film. These scenes are often accompanied by joyful music and lack narration, allowing us to simply focus on the horses. As Burt discusses, human vision ‘is the most impressionable and effective sense ’ thus the reiteration of these ‘freedom’ shots causes a profound reaction both ‘emotionally and ethically’. By showing these shots, we share Beauty’s happiness at being free from human oppression. Particularly when these shots are contrasted against the darkly lit, ominously soundtracked scenes of animal cruelty, such as the use of whips and particularly harrowingly the dead body of Beauty’s friend Ginger. By inserting shots of the horses free in the wild again, Thompson is presenting us with an alternative to the cruelty inflicted upon the animals by their owners, thus strengthening the point of Sewell’s novel and including the moral message that is often the core of a children’s film, in this case the importance of animal rights.
Black Beauty’s depiction of cruelty and occasional violence, is an aspect not usually seen within children films yet seems appropriate in this film as it provides visual weight in convincing the viewer to stand against animal cruelty. This unconventional aspect is balanced by Thompson’s simple and concise presentation of the plot. Beauty’s narrated actions are nearly always accompanied by a matching camera shot portraying the description or action, leaving us with no doubt as to what is happening. This makes the story easier for a younger audience to follow.
Despite the unchallenged presence of animals as the central characters in this film, there is still a strong human to animal interaction in the film. By including the trait common to children’s films of a friendship between humans and animal, such as Beauty has with his owner Joe, a young audience can see how humans can bring enjoyment to an animals life. Likewise by showing negative human to animal interaction we are warned about the consequences of treating animals badly. Tim Morris in You’re only young twice: children’s literature and film  discusses Black Beauty the novel, comments on how Thompson’s adaption enforces the human to animal connection more so than Sewell does in her novel. Indeed in reference to the line in the film ‘The story of my life is the story of the people in it’, Morris comments that ‘this is a statement that neither Sewell or her narrator ever utters’. Therefore, despite the constant animal presence, Thompson is including a ‘human interest’ as well as a purely animal one in her adaptation. Thompson’s inclusion of these moments, serves as a reminder to us that we as mentioned by Burt, have the ability to effect change.
Throughout the film animals are represented as being as important, if not more so that humans. It is Beauty who senses the unseen danger of an unstable bridge, Beauty that alerts and rescues his companions from fire and Beauty that stays with his owners when they are hurt. From the beginning of the film, it is the horses that are represented as and wise. Through every episodic moment, when Beauty gains a new owner, no matter how cruel or abusive the owner is, the horses still make every effort to save their owners if needs be. This juxtaposed with the indifference and brutality of many of the owner, represents how despite humanities views of greatness, we are often not as worthy as the ‘lowly’ horse. The horses in Black Beauty represent heroism and wisdom, in sharp contrast with the cruelty and indifference shown by people. As well as being a children’s film, the film also promotes the message of Sewell’s novel for increased animal rights. The human characteristics attributed to Beauty and his companions and their representation as more important than the humans in the films, not only incorporates the generic aspects of a children film but presents Sewell’s protest for greater animal rights in an accessible and memorable way.
Whilst as an adult viewing the film, the narration can sometimes be over dramatic and the plot slightly simplistic, overall I found Black Beauty an excellent children’s film, with a strong moral theme and links to animal rights. Black Beauty is not the only film that uses horses to promote animal rights. Roslyn in Arthur Millers western The Misfits (1961) also fights against animal cruelty using horses as a focus. Roslyn appears to me as the embodiment of Sewell, fighting for animal rights in a society that is unreceptive. The Misfits uses human feelings and emotions to convey it’s message about horses, yet films such as Animal Farm, use the horses and their feelings directly to convey a message. Despite not making the same point about human to animal cruelty as Black Beauty does, in a similar way Boxer in Animal Farm represents the struggle to fight against oppression and control. A film that presents close interactions between human and animals, similarly to Black Beauty is The Horse Whisperer which much like Black Beauty shows the change that horse and human can effect upon each other and the fragility of human mastery over horses.
As Burt notes ‘Horses occupy an important place, particularly for younger viewers because they are both powerful and yet easily domesticate’. In Black Beauty they represent strength, compassion and heroism, creating an enjoyable yet powerful children’s film.
For anyone interested in further research, below is a list of helpful websites, articles and books covering the topics discussed in this article
Jonathan Burt, Animals in Film Volume, (London: Reaktion, 2002)
Tim Morris, You’re Only Young Twice: Children’s Literature and Film, (USA: University of Illinois Press, 2000)
WW Dixon, Film genre 2000: New Critical Essays, ( New York: State Univ of New York Press, 2000)
David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (London: Routledge, 1997)
Barry Langford, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond (Edinburgh: Endinburgh University Press, 2005)
Steve Baker, Society & Animals 9:3
 Tim Dirks, ‘Children – Kids, Family Films’, Filmsite, (2013), https://www.filmsite.org/childrensfilms.html, [accessed 11 July 2013] (para. 1 of 130
 The Script Lab LLC, ‘ Children’, THEscriptLab, (2013) https://thescriptlab.com/screenplay/genre/children, (para. 2 of 5)
 Dirks, Filmsite, https://www.filmsite.org/childrensfilms.html, (para1 of 13)
 Jonathan Burt. Animals in Film, Vol. 1, London: Reaktion Books, 2002. 232 pp 15
 Burt. Animals in Film, Vol. 1, pp 15
 Burt. Animals in Film, Vol. 1, pp 138
 Timothy Morris, You’re Only Young Twice: Children’s Literature and Film, USA: University of Illinois Press, 2000. pp200, p19