Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is a psychiatrist given the case of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a young man working as a stable-hand who has blinded six horses with a metal spike. As Dysart delves into Alan’s history, and in particular his fascination with horses, he uncovers some uncomfortable truths about both Alan and himself.
Peter Shaffer (1926-2016) wrote very theatrical plays which have as often as not translated well to a more realistic medium, the cinema. Out of sixteen plays staged, his reputation nowadays probably rests with the public at least on two or three: Amadeus, maybe The Royal Hunt of the Sun (which has been a school text – I studied it for A Level English), and certainly the present work. Born in Liverpool, his identical twin brother was Anthony Shaffer (who died in 2001), himself best known on stage for Sleuth (filmed twice) and for his screenplays, such as those for The Wicker Man and Hitchcock’s Frenzy. The brothers’ first works were crime novels under the joint pseudonym “Peter Antony”. Peter’s first play was The Salt Land, broadcast on the then-new ITV network in 1955; the play exists in the archives. His first stage play was Five Finger Exercise in 1958, which won him the Evening Standard Drama Award. It was filmed in 1962. The double bill of one-acters The Private Ear and The Public Eye (1962) were filmed respectively as The Pad (And How to Use It) in 1966 and Follow Me! in 1972. Most of his later plays were first produced at the National Theatre, and Equus was one of these, first produced by John Dexter there in 1973. Peter Firth played Alan Strang and the first Dysart was Alec McCowen. Firth continued to play the role when it opened on Broadway, where the initial Dysart was Anthony Hopkins. Richard Burton took over the role later in the run, which caused a surge in box office receipts due to his name. Burton was cast again in this film version. At first the producers wanted a better known actor as Alan, but Burton lobbied hard for Firth to be cast. He had after all originated the role and had played it over a thousand times on stage by that point. Firth had acted as a child – Britons of a certain age will remember him as one of the cast of the children’s show The Double Deckers – but hadn’t by then, in his early twenties, really established himself yet as an adult actor.
Equus is a play which makes a point of its theatricality, often staged on a bare stage, with Dysart addressing the audience directly and the horses played by men (often trained dancers) in masks. Sidney Lumet’s film takes a more realistic approach, not always entirely successfully. There are real horses on screen – and realistic blindings, be warned, though those shots are fleeting. Although the film is set squarely in England, specifically in Hampshire (the cinema Jill takes Alan to is in Winchester), the film was made entirely in Canada, possibly due to Burton’s tax-exile status at the time. At times Lumet does depart from realism: for example, Firth plays Alan in a key childhood flashback when he is six years old, and Jill’s seduction of Alan and the subsequent horse-blinding is shot by DP Oswald Morris through a reddish-orange filter, suggestive of hellfire.
While it’s at heart a detective story, with the detective not looking to find out who did the deed, but why he did it, Equus is a play and film of ideas. It depicts Alan’s self-generated faith with the stultifying conventional religion of his mother (Joan Plowright). Dysart feels this conflict himself. One key monologue describes his dream where he’s an Inca priest performing human sacrifice. Ultimately the question is: Alan, despite the monstrous thing he did, has felt true passion, and if Dysart “cures” him, will he remove that? Is it better to be passionate when the alternative is mediocrity? This is a conflict Shaffer would later dramatise in Amadeus, where Salieri has to face the fact that an appalling human being (Mozart) is the repository of a genius he will never experience. Themes of the conflict between the secular and the sacred, between reason and emotion, pervade his work, often structured as a conflict between two men.
In the play, Dysart has several monologues addressed to the audience directly (as Salieri does in his play). In the film, these are rendered as voiceover and sometimes with Burton speaking to camera. This is another break from strict realism, not least because Shaffer is in a theatrical tradition of specifically and overtly written dialogue, not always strictly naturalistic. In this, the film benefits from Burton being an actor with considerable presence, not least in his voice. Firth, with his curly fair hair, channels a fallen angel vibe, and there’s more than a little homoeroticism in the play and film, with Alan’s “forbidden” passion. (The subtext is there for the taking, especially given that Equus is the work of a gay writer.) Directing actors was always a strength of Sidney Lumet’s throughout his long and genre-versatile career, and there’s not a weak link in the cast. Oswald Morris’s cinematography is generally low-key and naturalistic and Richard Rodney Bennett provides a fine score. The film is not entirely successful, but the strength of the original play gets it through and it remains compelling. It wasn’t an especial commercial success however. Burton, Firth and Shaffer were all nominated for Oscars but none of them won. This was the final one of Burton’s seven nominations without a win.
Equus the play continues to be revived. The 2007 production (which I saw), directed by Thea Sharrock from a text revised by Shaffer, with Dysart played by Richard Griffiths and Alan by Daniel Radcliffe, caused some controversy due to Radcliffe’s scenes of full-frontal nudity when he was still associated with the Harry Potter franchise. (Jenny Agutter was also in that production, this time taking the role of magistrate Hesther Saloman, played in the film by Eileen Atkins.)
The BFI’s release of Equus is a Region B Blu-ray with a further DVD. The film carried a AA certificate (fourteen and over) on its original British cinema release, but it was at the stronger end of that category and is now a 15. The Watchers is a 12 according to the IMDB, which is feasible, but it doesn’t appear on the BBFC website as I write this. The other extras are documentary material exempted from certification.
Equus was shot in 35mm and this Blu-ray transfer, supplied to the BFI by MGM, is in the intended ratio of 1.85:1. As mentioned above, Morris’s cinematography tends towards the cooler-toned and naturalistic most of the time, and this transfer is solid, the colours as they should be and grain filmlike.
The soundtrack is the original mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0, and dialogue, sound effects and music are clear and well-balanced. An isolated music and effects track is also available. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available for the feature only, and I didn’t detect any errors in them.
The extras begin with a commentary track by Julie Kirgo and the late Nick Redman, recorded in 2014 for Twilight Time’s edition of Equus. The rapport between the two is obvious and so is their knowledge, with Redman’s knowledge and appreciation of Shaffer’s work being apparent. At the end, Redman wonders if they could talk through all 137 minutes of this film, and they do that very well with few dead spots.
A further audio track is a recording of the Guardian Lecture Sidney Lumet did at the National Film Theatre in 1981. He is interviewed by Derek Malcolm, and this is more of a career overview as Equus is hardly mentioned. There’s more about what was his then newest film, Prince of the City. As usual, film clips shown during the talk have been edited out. Questions from the audience are a little hard to make out. The interview runs 88:49, then the film audio takes over.
Also on the Blu-ray disc is an interview with Peter Firth by Leigh Singer (39:23). This was recorded in lockdown, so is audio-only over on-screen stills. This concentrates heavily on Firth’s involvement with Equus, from auditioning for the stage role as a young actor to the present, including the intriguing suggestion that as he is now of a certain age he could play Dysart, though so far that hasn’t happened.
The extras on the Blu-ray disc end with the theatrical trailer for Equus (2:00) and The Watchers (26:27). The latter is a BFI-produced short film, shot in 1969 in black and white 16mm, directed by Richard Foster, an intriguing piece centring on the growing pains of sixteen-year-old Julie (Rosemary Lord), in which she imagines something in the sky. Have aliens landed?
The DVD contains three more extras. The largest of them is In from the Cold? A Portrait of Richard Burton (121:21), a documentary made by Tony Palmer in 1988. Put together after Burton’s death, it features archive footage of the man himself, plus contributions from significant figures in his life who were still alive at the time, including siblings and his teacher Philip Burton. Richard became his ward and changed his name to Burton as a result. Other interviewees include wives and work colleagues and fellow actors like Robert Hardy and John Gielgud. The result is a life story of a complex and rather self-destructive man, who acknowledged that plenty of other actors had the talent he had, often more so, but somehow he was the one who became the star, and when married (twice) to Elizabeth Taylor, half of one of the most famous couples of the day. There are plenty of film clips too.
The remaining two short films are Religion and the People (14:18), a Ministry of Information short from 1940 showcasing the work of various religious denominations in the UK during wartime, and not just the Christian ones. The Farmer’s Horse (17:34) is a 1951 Central Office of Information short made at a time when many farms were dispensing with horses in favour of tractors. But, the film suggests, there are uses for our equine friends still.
The BFI’s thirty-six-page booklet, with the first pressing only, begins with an essay by Maura Spiegel (spoiler warning), “Equus from Stage to Screen”. This covers the play and film from inception to release and its reception. Spiegel is the author of a biography of Lumet and she also contributes a profile of the man, as does John Wyver about Peter Shaffer. The booklet also includes film credits, notes and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.