Director: Sidney Lumet
Script: Peter Shaffer
Cast: Richard Burton, Peter firth, Colin Blalely, Joan Plowright, Harry Andrews, Eileen Atkins, Jenny Agutter, John Wyman
Running time: 138 minutes
Equus is based on the play of the same name by Peter Shaffer, written in 1973. It tells the rather peculiar story of a psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Richard Burton), who reluctantly agrees to attempt to treat a troubled young man, of 17 years of age, who has a pathological religious fascination with horses. The young man, Alan Strang (Peter Firth), seemingly randomly blinded six horses in the stables he worked at with a sickle.
Apparently Shaffer was inspired to write Equus when he heard of a crime involving a 17-year-old who had blinded six horses in a small town in Suffolk. It seems likely that this is the author’s attempt to try and rationalize why this might have happened. The successful play, which came before the film, caused a major scandal because it revolved around a teenager’s sexual – and religious – fascination with horses, in particular, an imagined horse god he names Equus. Plus, it also featured some nudity, which is always going to get conservatively-minded folks frothing at the mouth.
By using all kinds of manipulative tricks of his trade Dr Dysart manages to get Alan to open up to him, revealing what really happened on the night of the attack, and also the events leading up to his horrific actions. What follows is a slow-paced, but nevertheless very engaging and original story where the revelation, unless you already know the story, is quite disturbing and surprising.
When Alan’s overtly religious mother, Dora (Plowright), punishes her young son by removing his picture of ‘Christ in chains’ from his bedroom wall, and then later replaces it with a picture of a powerful-looking horse, the boy sees the horse as a representative of God and confuses his adoration of his “God” with sexual attraction, thus leading to some borderline bestiality scenes later on in the story.
Apparently, it’s also about “the conflict between personal values and satisfaction and societal mores, expectations and institutions, and, in a more classical sense, about the conflict between Apollonian and Dionysian values and systems in human life.” Well, at least to the internet! Or, you can just enjoy it as an unusual and somewhat beguiling film about a young man coming to terms with his own faith and sexuality.
The performances here are all top-notch, with Burton on top form (his pieces to camera speeches are excellent) as the philosophising psychiatrist who comes to admire the boy’s faith and passion, even if such a strange passion brought about an act of heinous violence against some amazing animals.
Peter Firth is also excellent, reprising his role as Alan Strang from the then West-end stage play, and he clearly has some of the best lines including: “At least I galloped – when did you?”, targeted at Dr Dysart. Burton’s character later realises that Strang has the desire to become a centaur, whereas the Dr just eagerly reads about them, being an avid fan of Greek myths and legends.
Another peripheral element of Equus that I enjoyed was seeing all the older cars, the 70s décor, technology (check out the massive Dictaphone!) and fashions, and even seeing the way people behaved back then; smoking at the work-place, etc. Plus, seeing the very lovely Jenny Agutter in tight riding jodhpurs, and later naked, almost gave me a heat flush!
The British Film Institute is distributing Equus on Blu-ray and DVD. There are a bunch of extras on the disc, which include:
Sidney Lumet Guardian Lecture – Despite not being able to hear the questions from the audience very well, Lumet is an interesting subject and a good speaker so this is well worth a listen.
Peter Firth interview (39.5 min) – Leigh Singer interviews Peter Firth about his career in both theatre and in films. He’s got some fun stories to tell and he does reminisce about filming on Equus. Apparently Lumet rarely did a second take and instead of saying ‘cut’ he’d utter the words: “We’re on the wrong set!”;
Trailer (2 mins) – a nice mix of iconic scenes from the film, all underscored by Burton’s equally iconic voice;