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EQUUS (director: Sidney Lumet; screenwriter: Peter Shaffer/based on the play by Peter Shaffer; cinematographer: Oswald Morris; editor: John Victor-Smith; music: Richard Rodney Bennett; cast: Richard Burton (Dr. Martin Dysart), Peter Firth (Alan Strang), Colin Blakely (Frank Strang), Joan Plowright (Dora Strang), Harry Andrews (Harry Dalton), Eileen Atkins (Magistrate Hester Saloman), Jenny Agutter (Jill Mason), Kate Reid (Margaret Dysart), John Wyman (Horseman); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Elliott Kastner/Lester Persky; MGM Home Entertainment; 1977-UK)
“A compelling thriller.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Based on Peter Shaffer’s successful psychological play, that ran for three years on Broadway. Shaffer adapted his own play to the screen. Under the respectful direction of Sidney Lumet (“Serpico”/”Network”/”The Verdict”) it’s brought to the screen as a compelling thriller (it was shot on location in Toronto). Its major problem is that its theatrical symbolism cannot easily be transferred to the screen, as its shocking sexual-religious symbolism loses its power when the tragic incidents are realistically acted out.

Magistrate Hester Saloman (Eileen Atkins)wants middle-aged psychiatristDr. Martin Dysart (Richard Burton), who administers a progressive English hospital for the mentally ill youth, to treat the 17-year-oldAlan Strang (Peter Firth), a stable boy who one night in a rage blinded six horses with a metal spike in the barn where he worked for Mr. Dalton (Harry Andrews). Using theFreudian methodthe morose Martin investigates the dark secrets of his troubled patient’s life: that includes visits with Alan’s overbearing religious mother (Joan Plowright) and his cold printer father (Colin Blakely), getting to the bottom of the kid’s experiences with horses, the kid’s elevating the horse to a god-like status of worship as a personal deity, his relationship with the young stable girl Jill Mason (Jenny Agutter) and, in the shrink’s attempt to unravel the mysteries of the troubled kid’s mind to make him normal again, the shrink examines his own repressed life and loveless marriage.

It’s the playwright’s belief that the cure might be worse than the problem, as it’s suggested by removing Alan’s demons and returning him to “normal” life will in effect emotionally lobotomize the kid by removing his passion for living. Unfortunately, this sounded like horseshit and made me wary of everything about this hyperbolic theatrical production.

It plays out as a suspense yarn, that is built around investigating the crude mysticism of the patient. It goes on for so long, that it might think itself a primer for a course on abnormal psychology.

Firth, who was in the stage version, gives a superb flawless performance as the freaky perp; while Burton articulates well and delivers his patented critic-pleasing monologues to the camera. But for me, he’s not that convincing as a probing miracle-worker shrink.Shaffer’s tale of myth, religion, sexual inadequacy and madness, though intelligently presented, never provokes us to do any further thinking as it told all in wrapping things up in such a tidy bundle.

The title is derived from the name for the genus of animals to which horses belong.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”