At the crux of Sidney Lumet’s Equus (1977) lies a tragedy of almost Median proportions; of man’s inability to comprehend – nee, to make peace with - his limited understanding of the infinite; to resolve within himself that epic conflict of the soul, ever-parched to experience ecstasies reserved for the Gods, yet bound by earthly constraints in the quagmire of its own concrete form. Such inescapable ‘passion’ conjured, then magnified with the onset of awkward adolescence, is brought to even more ravishing fruition in the world-weary man who attempts – through more profound reason - to deconstruct its corrosive nature. To appease rather than satisfy, then tranquilize instead of nurture the interminable, this elder statesman will snuff out its fiery brand on a young man’s heart; trading one prison – abject despair – for quite another: normalcy.
All of these deeper thoughts are profoundly expressed in Peter Schaffer’s 1973 Tony Award-winning play. On stage, Equus’ pronounced repudiation of the natural world was scintillating; the dismantling of mis-perceived madness afflicting the impressionable and haunted, Alan Strang (Peter Firth) – touched with terrible childhood memories (a mother’s overzealous religious fervor at odds with his father’s atheism; an extension of his ineffectual mastering of paternal love). These impediments uproot and promote Alan’s emotional discord. Eventually, desire in its purest form is plucked from Alan’s mind and bosom through a series of brutal regression therapies, only to be firmly implanted within his liberator’s heart and soul.
Psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is a burnt out shell of his former self, voyeuristically plunging into Alan’s exalted abyss, searching for some greater epiphany. The realization, that his own passion will likely remain discontented, comes too late in Dysart’s life’s journey. He’s destined to remain anger and frustrated. Indeed, for a man who has given so much to the cause of ‘restoring sanity’ Alan’s defiance is a bitter pill to swallow; much more than the phony ‘truth serum’ Dysart administers to coax Alan’s confession to his motives for a very brutal crime inflicted upon the innocent – or rather, innocence lost.
The probing intellectualisms of Schaffer’s disturbing masterpiece are less successful on film; perhaps because the dimensionality of the work itself is chronically blunted by the two-dimensionality of the moving image. Equus is blessed by a unique assemblage of exceptionally fine character actors, a towering central performance from Richard Burton; also with Peter Schaffer’s peripatetic screenplay, embellished for the screen what the stage could only suggest through transitional uses of light. But Sidney Lumet’s more naturalistic approach to the material; ‘opening up’ the play, is quite unnecessary. Moreover, at times it just seems awkward and untrue to its origins; the imposition of changing locales, times of day and implied flashbacks becoming marginally theatrical, though never evolving into something more than a sensualistic nightmare. Like Burton’s doomed psychiatric counsellor, we are never in danger of losing our way. Sidney Lumet brings us to the brink more than a handful of times, but stops just short of a grander liberation, less subversive, though just as problematic as religious romanticism, never entirely fulfilled.
On the surface, Equus can seem just odd and out of sorts, despite superb performances from Burton and co-star, Peter Firth; the latter tenaciously erotic, yet Christ-like in his all too human suffrage; punished by some majestic design beyond his control. Firth’s performance goes beyond mere thoughtfulness for the subject material; delving into some deeply tortured mysticism. The part could so easily have swung the other way – to quirky ridicule or plain vanilla eccentricity run amuck. Instead, Firth manages to extract a striking coherency from his lacerated martyrdom. The dynamic agony in his imploding ecstasy is what sells Equus beyond vintage 70’s art house cinema. Regrettably, the movie’s appeal is neither timeless nor perhaps even lasting once the experience of seeing it is over; its memory expunged from our consciousness, or worse, merely dismissed as just another psycho-babble riddle unraveled to its inevitable conclusion – the anticipated salvation of one man’s soul at the expense of another’s.
As a dream freshly remembered, Equus opens with a passionate first-person monologue, expertly delivered by Richard Burton (an actor whose vocal presence alone could command a recitation of the telephone book). Dr. Martin Dysart addresses the audience with a convolution of perplexing images relayed in flashback. We see a sweaty naked man with wild hair in half shadow, caressing the soft mane of his white steed; listening to Burton’s near-hypnotic/mildly operatic exaltation of an ‘appetite’ shared by rider and mount. Whatever element of seventies ‘kink’ is suggested herein (bestiality, anyone?) is immediately dashed as the timber in Burton’s voice grows more shrill: the subversive sensuality in these endless darkened recesses now juxtaposed with a tight, little office becoming more well-lit by the moment, as psychiatrist Martin Dysart expresses his chaotic contempt, miraculously transgressing into an even more seditious admiration. The doctor has become envious of his patient. Equus begins on this shockingly vibrant note of persecuted voluptuousness. But it quickly devolves into gloomy tedium; an atypically British drawing room comedy of errors, its trappings as a psychological melodrama impeded by the rest of the story’s rather pedestrian linear narrative.
Worse for the movie is Sidney Lumet and cinematographer, Oswald Morris’ unified worship of the stagecraft; bringing up the ‘houselights’ as it were; the camera slowly dollying away from a close-up on Burton’s pock-skinned, careworn, frustrated doctor, to reveal the squalid surroundings where he conducts his daily business - curing troubled minds; or rather, anesthetizing them to accept the boredoms of life from which not even he can escape. Lumet and Morris’ theatricality grounds the visuals in a sort of moving tableau; never achieving the mesmerizing abstract of Equus as live performance; never pushing the artistic boundaries of our titular hero far enough to truly martyr him to its cause.
We are introduced to court magistrate, Hesther Saloman (Eileen Atkins) who barges into Martin’s office at the psychiatric hospital. Saloman is adamant Dysart take up the cause of analyzing and curing Alan Strang (Peter Firth); a boy accused of brutally blinding six horses with a hoof pick at the stables where he once worked. Surely, this is an act of madness; the perverse ravings of a lunatic more dangerous to himself even than he is to society at large. But Dysart is overburdened with hard cases. Why should Alan’s be any different? At first, the boy does not disappoint him on this score; responding to any and all inquiries by singing famous commercial jingles aloud and remaining generally despondent.
Alan forces Dysart into a sort of quid pro quo analysis of his own bloodless and emotionally starved life. Dysart confesses to a reoccurring dream: one recasting him as a religious figure inhumanely murdering children. We catch glimpses of Dysart and his wife, Margaret (Kate Reid), living all but apart in their fashionable townhouse; the days blended into months of cohabitation without any sort of affection or even communication transpiring between them. Dysart is emotionally exhausted. Moreover, he harbors a deep-seeded dissatisfaction with psychiatry as the ‘cure all’ for the human mind. Shaffer and Lumet are rather hard on Freudian principles; our movie’s supposed proponent of psychoanalysis – Dr. Dysart – questioning if any good can come of it. What does he do for his adolescent patients anyway? Merely quell their fears and teach them how to adjust to the mendacities of life. Yet, Dysart cannot help but admire such extreme behaviors; their thrashing against the complacency that surrounds and threatens to engulf, defying the erosion of that spark of desire Dysart has long since sacrificed and is now incapable of stirring from within.
As far as Dysart can see, Alan’s only crime is he has made a violent attempt to break free from the chains of societal acceptance. Salomon, however, regards Alan’s blinding of the stallions as an act in desperate need of Dysart’s brilliant psychoanalytic skills; a last ditch effort to restore Alan’s sanity. And so, the therapies begin. After Alan refuses to open up to Dysart’s prodding questions, Dysart gives Alan a tape recorder. Perhaps what he cannot express in his presence he will commit to taped reflections in the privacy of his own room. In the meantime, Dysart pays a call on Alan’s parents; Dora (Joan Plowright) and Frank (Colin Blakely). What he quickly uncovers is a dysfunctional family unit, predicated on Frank’s submissive refusal to embrace Dora’s religious piety. The walls in Alan’s attic bedroom are covered with pasted images of religious iconography and a single framed portrait of a white stallion. In time, Dysart learns the horse’s visage is a replacement for a rather monstrous rendering of the crucifixion. Dysart is allowed to compare these two images side by side; Christ’s chains correlated to the bit caught in the stallion’s mouth; the eyes of both horse and the divine registering fear and agony.
Dora suffers a breakdown in Dysart’s presence. Frank momentarily comforts her, but with great reluctance. In flashback, we see the Strangs at the beach when Alan was a boy; a stranger (John Wyman) on a black stallion approaching Alan, who is preoccupied with building his sand castle. The stranger is generous, offering to take Alan on a brisk jaunt on horseback. Alan willingly accepts. But the race to the edge of the surf is alarming to Dora and Frank, who panic and demand Alan’s immediate return; the boy’s moment of exhilaration suddenly dashed to pieces as Frank yanks Alan from his mount, injuring his arm in the process, but more importantly, embarrassing him in front of this rather robust horseman; just the sort of male role model Alan would prefer.
Wyman (who many will remember as the buff assassin in For Your Eyes Only 1981) is dressed from head to toe in black to complement the shadowy course hair of his mount, emphasizing Dora’s religious teachings to Alan about the Pagans who – when first encountering men on horseback – believed the rider and horse were one – a sort of modern day centaur. Alan’s recollection also feeds into Dora’s fears about the devil; this tall and captivating stranger made momentarily attractive to a young innocent who knows nothing of wickedness but is nevertheless tempted by it. Besides, the ride Allan is taken on is not a celebratory adventure as – say – The Black Stallion Rides Again – but a perilous sprint into the gloomy surf, thwarted at the last possible moment by Dora’s frantic shrieks and Frank’s over-protectiveness. Have Dora and Frank been too quixotic in their parental responsibilities? Or have they inadvertently witnessed the very moment when pure evil first began to penetrate Alan’s heart?
Equus would have more to say about this struggle for a young man’s soul if only the movie didn’t mangle its religious foreshadowing with bouts of flawed masochism. We observe Frank watching while his son clenches a homemade bridle of rope in his mouth, straddling his mattress and using a coat hanger to thrash himself against the thigh; his imaginative attempt to relive the experience of riding with wild abandonment for the first time. Superficially, the moment represents Alan’s need to escape his parents’ provinciality, fraught with the most remedial comprehension of pubescence. Only later, is this more unearthly and orgasmic desire fulfilled as Alan strips naked to mount ‘Nugget’ – one of the horses in his employer’s stables. With Dysart’s prodding – ‘getting off’ vicariously, as it were, on Alan’s crude and very cruel regression therapy sessions – we witness the boy’s uninhibited sexual arousal; feeling the course horsehair caught between his naked legs, Nugget’s soft white mane cushioning his exposed and bouncing crotch; Alan’s screams of elation echoing in Dysart’s eardrums.
Both patient and doctor have reached an impassioned crossroads in their psychotherapy, never again to be the same. From this moment of raw carnal frenzy, Equus unexpectedly devolves into a run-of-the-mill psychoanalytic ‘who done it?’ or rather ‘why did he do it?’ Dysart forces Alan to tell him about Jill Mason (Jenny Agutter); the equestrian rider responsible for getting him the job as stable hand at Harry Dalton’s (Harry Andrews) stud farm and riding stables. Despite Alan’s initial lack of skills required to do the job, Dalton takes him on without reservations. Jenny is flirtatious, encouraging Alan to escort her to a ‘blue movie’ in the village. Alan relates this moment to Dysart as ‘disgusting’ – the theater populated with only middle-aged men. The scene on the screen is a gratuitous display of flesh as Alan’s father walks into the theater, forcibly removing Alan from his seat in yet another moment of puritanical humiliation for Alan with Jenny as his witness this time around. But Alan is more relieved by the sudden realization his own father, strict and forthright as he pretends to be, is nevertheless flawed and all too human; come to the theater to quell his own appetites unsatisfied in his marriage.
Refusing to return home with Frank, Alan instead escorts Jenny back to the stables. She seduces him in the loft and he momentarily forgets himself – or rather, confuses his desire for her with his devotion to Equus; his misperceived god reincarnated as a horse. All this is told to Dysart in a flashback; Alan, boastful of how he plunged his manhood into Jenny. The truth, however, is that at the very moment where his own gratification might have been fulfilled, Alan instead becomes impotent and quite unable to perform. Jenny is tender and understanding. But Alan is beside himself; growing sullen and rude before being consumed by rage, ordering Jenny from the stables and taking the hoof pick to ferociously blind the stallions he believes are responsible for his failings as a man. It’s an unsettlingly homoerotic moment, Alan’s voiceover revealing to us that his mind could only see and think of ‘Him’ when attempting to make love to Jenny. This moment of mutilation is witnessed by a shell-shocked Harry Dalton, who knocks Alan to the ground – surrounded by his prized stallions writhing in pain, blood streaming from their hollowed out eye sockets.
The iconography of the crucifixion in this penultimate moment of revelation goes well beyond crystalizing the point of the story for the audience. In fact, it veers into that all too familiar, distorted cliché of demonic possession played out in movies like The Exorcist (1973) or The Omen (1976): the eternal conflict between good and evil. As Alan shouts, “Mine!...I am yours and you are mine! The Lord thy God is a Jealous God” we are presented with a moment more predictably lifted from the miserable mélange of the B-grade 1970’s horror movie. Equus is Alan’s god and – like Jesus – is wretchedly sacrificed. But is this the divine or the devil’s hand at work? We are never entirely certain whose will is in command of Alan from within.
In one of his previous sessions, Alan has compared horses to Christ more directly; their unquestioning benevolence and tireless servitude to man, only to be tortured with the bit caught between their teeth. Alan’s mutilation of the stallions is thus the movie’s counterpoint to the enslavement and torture Christ endured at the hand of the Romans. But it is a flawed equivalent at best; much more effectively fleshed out in Shaffer’s stagecraft with less bloodshed, eloquently expressed through performance and more visceral and alarming lighting effects. Arguably, the movie cannot get away with mere implications. However, Sidney Lumet does revert to a not altogether successful lighting technique – the stable suddenly bathed in a curious orange hue that vaguely reminds of those heat lamps used to rewarm day-old hotdogs sold at the deli.
Movies exist on ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. And yet, Shaffer’s wordy prose, however brilliantly spoken by costars Richard Burton and Peter Firth, suffer from Lumet’s big reveal - the grotesqueness in Alan’s sacrifice. The gutting of the horses’ eye sockets, repeated over and over again in close-up (presumably with mannequins and red dye number nine, although I must confess, it looked very real and unappealing), is just horrendous rather than shocking; undercutting all good taste. The transference of passion and/or evil from Alan’s painfully cleansed to Dysart’s ever-blackening heart becomes the movie’s banal denouement. We know Alan’s case has pushed Dysart over the edge. In point of fact, he didn’t have far to go, considering the crippling ennui coagulating in Dysart’s mind, already impugning his ability to be a good psychiatrist or even an average human being.
Equus, thus, concludes on a dower note of staleness. And yet, the movie cannot be considered a total loss. For one thing, Equus is one of the most articulately scripted psychoanalytic/Biblical parables ever attempted for the movie screen. Despite its dramatic flaws, it strives for some grander meaning and that is ‘grand’ all by itself. If the movie is not entirely satisfying (and it’s not), the fault is more Sidney Lumet’s than Peter Shaffer’s tweaking of his own material. Equus on film shies from the perfection achieved on the stage. Yet, the performances are uniformly top-notch and worthy of our renewed consideration. Richard Burton remains a phenomenon for which no equal currently exists in our cinema firmament.
Peter Firth is bone-chillingly brilliant; utterly believable as a genuinely troubled and ‘almost’ lost soul. Joan Plowright exudes a captivatingly dainty ugliness as the wounded matriarch, internalizing her son’s emotional breakdown as somehow more her humiliation than his tragedy, despite the fact she cannot conceive her own complicity in its making. Finally, there is Eileen Atkins’ – magnificent as the sole voice of reason, dragging Burton’s ailing and erratic psychoanalyst back from the brink, kicking and screaming. Equus may not be a perfect. But it is potent, often disturbing, tenaciously original and unpleasantly sincere; in short - it stirs the mind to contemplations. Too few movies do as much.
Twilight Time’s relatively new alliance with MGM (under the Fox Home Video banner) gives us another reference quality 1080p transfer. In a word – flawless – full of attractively reproduced colors, naturalistic flesh tones and overall outstanding tonality, complimented with perfectly balanced film grain. In short, Equus on Blu-ray is everything one might expect or want it to be. Oswald Morris’ outdoor cinematography vividly pops while indoor scenes reveal Morris’ gift for mood lighting, everything captured with razor-sharp crystal clarity. Minute details are revealed throughout; from Alan’s tousled locks to Dysart’s murky tweeds. There are a few anomalies to consider; marginal blips of dirt and a moment or two of built-in flicker…also a curious warp and wobble of the entire image around the 16 min. mark: a minor quibbling at best. Equus’ lossless DTS-HD mono mix is remarkably aggressive with superb fidelity. Richard Rodney Bennett’s minimalist score is potent.
Extras? Wow! Twilight Time gives us ‘In from the Cold?: The World of Richard Burton’. At just over 2 hours this impressively mounted 1988 documentary by Tony Palmer is a treasure unto itself (archival interviews with Burton and laudatory comments made by his friends and fellow actors), richly satisfying in its content if not in its overall visual presentation. It is in HD. But the surviving elements are in fairly rough shape. Nevertheless, this is a most welcomed surprise. We also get a superb audio commentary from TT’s Nick Redman and Julie Kirgo; the latter once again providing us with some stellar insight in her liner notes to augment our appreciation of this movie. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)