When Equus was released in 1977, it certainly came with a high pedigree: it was based on Peter Shaffer's (Amadeus) Tony-Award winning play of 1975 (and adapted for the screen by Shaffer himself); it was directed by Sidney Lumet, already responsible for such highly regarded films as Serpico, Dog Day Afternoon, and Network; its cast included such British luminaries as Richard Burton, Joan Plowright, and Eileen Atkins, as well as Peter Firth, Jenny Agutter, and Colin Blakely. Most intimidating, perhaps, was the disturbing subject matter itself – the case of a seventeen-year old stableboy who inexplicably blinded six horses.
Martin Dysart (Richard Burton), the psychiatrist who is summoned to explore this boy's psyche, introduces us to this peculiar case. Alan Strang, the boy who assaulted the horses, is discussed as having cultivated in his formative years a pseudo-religious, erotically-tinged relationship with horses that somehow culminated in horrific violence. Dysart is initially plagued with doubt as to whether or not he can, or should even attempt to, help this boy. At the urging of Hesther Saloman (Eileen Atkins), a representative of the court in whom he confides and respects, he reluctantly agrees.
Alan (Peter Firth) is immediately uncooperative, as initially he does not even speak – he merely recites advertising jingles in song as a response to any of Dysart's inquiries. He appears to be – or, more likely, wants to appear – as a hopeless cause, prone to outbursts and not at all interested in explaining his motivations. When he eventually relents, the two begin to explore his fascination with, and deification of, horses. Dysart begin to roughly sketch the boy's influences: his mother Dora (Joan Plowright) is a pious, God-fearing woman who, according to his non-believing father Frank (Colin Blakely), aggressively smothered the boy with the Bible and religious studies and is directly responsible for Alan's troubles. Increasingly perplexed, he begins to obtain additionally odd snippets of information: Alan tells of an experience with a horse and an unknown man on a beach as a young boy; Frank tells of witnessing Alan one evening, nude, chanting in religious tones to a depiction of a horse hung above his bed -- that this picture replaced a representation of a bloodied, tortured Christ only begins to hint at the basis of Alan's apparent confusion. Alan's fervor had grown to such an extent that he fashioned a makeshift harness to his head and began flagellating himself. There are also reminiscences (visualized) of surreptitious, late-evening rides with horses in the nude, as well as his relationship with the sexually alluring (and confusing) Jill Mason (Jenny Agutter), the attractive young woman who got Alan his job in the stable in the first place.
As Dysart begins to decipher the fragments of information given him, he becomes increasingly obsessed and conflicted. Stymied by a loveless, childless marriage, he is a man devoid of any passion -- an affliction he sees as emblematic of greater modern society as a whole. Alan, although misguided, thrives on and lives for this peculiar, exotic passion, and Dysart responds with a curious mixture of envy and caution. He realizes that by addressing this dilemma directly he will ultimately be destroying a key component of the boy's individuality and his fundamental, primal self. However, he is also aware that Alan is in great pain, and that his only hope for life is the relief that he as a doctor may offer. The doctor continues exploring and struggling with Alan's odd mixture of sexual identity, religious fervor, and attempts at true communion with horses, all the while questioning notions of "normalcy" and his own complicity in encouraging and enforcing it as a psychiatrist.
As the film moves to its disquieting, violent climax (wherein the attack on the horses is shown in gruesome detail), Shaffer's script and thematic points vary between the insightful and altogether obvious. Deadly serious, Equus is largely a grand, probing social treatise disguised as individual psychodrama. Repression becomes a recurring motif and is explored in depth, whether engendered by society, piety (specifically Christian), or belief in science. In turn, so too does the idea of passion and true suffering, specifically the notion of true knowledge and wisdom only being attained through suffering. The cost of belonging to normal society, it would seem, is often at the price of unbridled individuality, however skewed. Although dressed in a bizarre, disturbing, and at times allegorical narrative, Shaffer's main points are - though perceptive - ultimately something less than profound.
Director Lumet does an adequate job bringing the stage play to cinematic life. His direction is even-handed, his camera appropriately static, flowing, and tightly framed. The acting, too, is generally excellent. Burton, often prone to hamminess and grandstanding (and he certainly has a few such moments here), is passionate and involved as the nearly defeated doctor – his embittered personal struggle generally rings true. Firth's Alan is given a far trickier role – he has to humanize not only the acts of an apparent monster, but must also convey this bizarre struggle in understandable, intelligible terms. He does so very well – his is a brave, compelling performance, admirably free of vanity. (It should be noted that both Burton and Firth were nominated for Academy Awards for their work.)
A few words about the script and the devices used: the monologues delivered by Burton, for example, addressed directly to the viewer, are not entirely effective in Equus the film. Often used as a means by which to comment on the proceedings – for distancing, irony, or otherwise – they simply do not resonate as intended. Burton does his best, but the results are often histrionic and forced. When a skilled actor delivers such impassioned dialogue on stage, the air can become absolutely charged – the intimacy of the theater, its darkness, and the closure of dramatic distance can create an experience that is transporting, exhilarating to an audience. So too is the case for the highly, relentlessly dramatic sessions between doctor and patient, which ratchet up the intensity levels as they move along. These roles, and the drama itself, are such that actors on any stage would understandably clamor. Unfortunately, the medium of film renders much of the inherent drama diminished. There is no blame being assigned – it is merely the result of an inadequate (perhaps even irreconcilable) bridge between the two artistic forms relative to this particular work.
Video: Equus is presented in a widescreen format with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. For a film released in 1977, it looks great. The color palette is generally drab (largely to reflect Dysart's current interior state), but the scenes of Alan's nighttime rituals are beautiful – especially the few sequences featuring an almost monochromatic blue, beautifully rendered moonlit landscape. The source materials must have been in excellent shape, as the transfer is remarkably well done.
Audio: For a film almost entirely dependent on dialogue (not surprising for a stage play such as this), the DD 1.0 soundtrack is also well-presented and in excellent shape. There are no pops of hisses of any kind, and the sullen, symphonic score by Richard Rodney Bennett is never overbearing or tinny. The words are always easy to hear, and are not buried or bombastic. Although not dynamic in any way, the audio balance feels right and overall the film sounds great for a mono track. There is also a Spanish language track in DD 1.0.
Extras: The only extra featured in this modest release is the original theatrical trailer, which is not in nearly as good shape as the film itself.
Final Thoughts: Equus uneasily treads the difficult terrain of being an effective, individual psychodrama while simultaneously operating as an all-encompassing critique on current Western society / civilization and its ills. It is somewhat successful on both fronts, but in its pleas for reasoned acceptance of those that society may deem dangerous or mad, as well as its sympathy (and celebration) of the individual, it becomes rather dubious: Equus aspires to shock and outrage the audience, and then justify (almost) the disturbing behavior of its protagonist by chiding the institutions that have damaged him but may ultimately help him. At 137 minutes, it is also so deadly serious of purpose that it becomes a rather dour experience – there is precious little of the passion and wonder that Alan undoubtedly feels on display, nor is there even much, if any, air to breathe. There are many interesting ideas at work in Equus, and the drama is unquestionably effective at times, but ultimately the film becomes mired in its obvious symbolism and sense of self-importance. However, interesting (and ambitious) failures are often much more interesting than modest successes, and on that level Equus is recommended to fans of the theater, any of the above actors, and those who enjoy dark, troubling, metaphoric drama.