Equus (1977) is the Sidney Lumet-directed film version of Peter Shaffer’s controversial 1973 play. Both the play and the film (which Shaffer adapted) grapple with weighty issues including primarily acute mental illness, and the spiritual advantages/disadvantages of religious passion and psychological therapy. The story focuses on the relationship between a psychiatrist, played in the film by Richard Burton, and his patient, Peter Firth. The case, suggested to Shaffer by a real-life incident, is about a 17-year-old boy who with a hoof pick viciously blinds six prized horses at the stable in which he’s employed. In both the play and the film there are undercurrents of bestiality and arguably themes of repressed homosexuality as well, though it’s also less about the boy than the psychiatrist’s reaction to his mental state. As in most London and New York productions of the play, in the film there is much full-frontal male nudity and, in the film more than the play, squirmily uncomfortable footage of Firth’s character physically as well as spiritually bonding with real horses. The subject matter made for one of The Onion’s better jokes.
In the play, instead of using real horses onstage, actors generally in black tights or body suits wear elaborate but singularly unreal horses’ heads. For the movie, Shaffer and presumably Lumet decided to use real, live horses instead, though the movie retains many other theatrical devices: at one point Firth plays himself at age six in a flashback scene, there are long monologues spoken directly into the camera by Burton, and deliberately theatrical, not realistic, lighting is utilized in several key scenes. Nonetheless, the decision to literalize the horses angered some purists, and partly for this reason reviews were mixed-to-negative. The subject matter turned audiences away and it was not a great commercial success.
This is unfortunate, for while Equus is a difficult film on many levels, it’s also adult and intelligent if at times a bit pretentious and self-conscious, though overall superbly acted by a peerless cast. Lumet’s direction is among his most accomplished. In addition to his usual uncluttered approach, often as simple as pointing his camera at the characters the audience will want most to watch at any given moment, his handling of all the scenes involving the horses is among his most subtly cinematic.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, licensed from MGM, offers a flawless transfer of the film, beautifully shot in spherical 1.85:1 Panavision by Oswald Morris. Further, the label’s usual extras are supplemented with a superb two-hour-plus documentary on Burton, In From the Cold? (1988), making this effectively an intriguing double-feature.*
The movie, like the play, is set in England but filmed, apparently for tax reasons, in and around Toronto, Ontario. Court magistrate Hesther Salomon (Eileen Atkins) presses esteemed but overworked psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Burton) to take on the case of Alan Strang (Firth), a 17-year-old boy who blinded horses at the stable where he worked.
Alan proves hard to treat. He’s either catatonic or, when questioned, replies with television commercial jingles. Looking for answers Dysart visits Alan’s parents, housewife Dora (Joan Plowright), a devout Christian, and her printer husband, Frank (Colin Blakely), an atheist. Through this contradictory child-rearing Alan develops a strange spiritual interest in horses. After destroying a reproduction of a painting of the Crucifixion, his father gives him a painting of a horse, which glowers down at Alan in his bed. Dysart later visits the stables where its wealthy owner, Harry Dalton (Harry Andrews), express disgusted shock over what has happened. Until Alan went mad, he gave every indication of being a hard-working polite young man. Dysart also learns that a young woman Alan knew there, rider Jill Mason (Jenny Agutter), suffered her own breakdown and became reclusive after the incident.
Dysart gradually penetrates Alan’s psyche. Alan’s attraction to horses takes on a religious, as well as sexual significance. He sees the horses, which he calls by the name “Equus,” their Latin origin, and the bits they wear as enslaved and tortured like Christ, and that in becoming a stable boy, Alan has been granted entrance into their holy temple. Alan’s confessions become increasingly dark, as he attempts to become one with the horses by sneaking them off into the night, nakedly riding and caressing them.
Ultimately though, Equus is less about Alan than it is about Dysart, an unhappily married man with existential concerns about the treatment he provides. However cross-eyed Alan’s religious epiphanies, Dysart argues, through his passion (in the religious sense) he’s experienced something Dysart has not. To “cure” Alan is to make him “normal,” but at what cost? The film reminded me of friends I’ve known with bipolar disorder. Medication might provide some stable, manageable middle ground between the manic highs and cripplingly suicidal lows but, once experienced, those unimaginable maniacal highs are pretty hard to give up, which is partly why so many manic-depressives go off their medication.
The original London production starred Firth, with Alec McCowen as Dysart. Firth reprised the role on Broadway and in Los Angeles productions featuring, in turn, Anthony Hopkins, Burton, Leonard Nimoy, and Anthony Perkins as Dysart, with Tom Hulce eventually replacing Firth.
Firth is fine but Burton is almost revelatory, giving one of the best performances of his career. He could be overly theatrical or walk through certain movie parts, but apparently he recognized this as a major opportunity and, with Lumet’s directions, gives a remarkably restrained performance. The entire supporting cast operates at the same high standard.
The video transfer of Equus is basically flawless. It’s a clean source with great detail and nearly perfect color, while the DTS-HD Master Audio, a 2.0 mono mix, sounds good also, and includes optional English subtitles. The region-free disc is a 3,000-copy limited edition.
In addition to Twilight Time’s usual extras – audio commentary by Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo with liner notes by the latter, an isolated score track, and trailer, the disc includes a marvelous two-hour-plus documentary of Burton made shortly after his death (but with a mysterious 2010 copyright notice), In From the Cold?, featuring interviews with his vast Welsh family and hometown friends, tracing his life from beginning to end and buttressed with generous film clips (reflecting more on Burton’s stormy life than chronologically unspooled) and archival interviews with Burton (and wife Elizabeth Taylor). Fascinating stuff: Burton obviously drunk and self-loathing in several of the interviews, Lauren Bacall’s scathing criticism of Dick and Liz’s opulent lifestyle, and John Gielgud reflecting on a bemusing encounter with Ringo Starr (“He had no idea who I was, and a daresay he didn’t know who I was, either!”) aboard the famous couple’s yacht. It’s worth the price of admission all by itself.
Equus is a challenging work, not entirely successful and in many respects unpleasant, but it ambitiously tries to make sense of what may ultimately be unknowable. As Dysart himself, paraphrasing Alan, says, “At least I have galloped. Have you?”
* Another double-bill an imaginative film programmer might try would be to pair Equus with John Huston’s similar Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).