British playwright Peter Shaffer has gone to many dark and deep places in his work—the crowning achievement of his career is arguably Amadeus, which premiered in 1979 and was adapted into the lauded 1984 film of the same name. Yet perhaps the most provocative of Shaffer’s works is Equus, which premiered onstage in 1973 and ran for years in London and New York before reaching the screen in this 1977 adaptation. (As with Amadeus, Shaffer handled the screenwriting chores.) Inspired by a gruesome incident from real life, Equus imagines the psychology of a young man who blinded six horses with a scythe. The picture is structured as a duel of sorts between the disturbed teenager, Alan Strang (Peter Firth), and his psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Richard Burton). Equus begins when Alan is committed to Martin’s hospital following the incident, so Martin spends the rest of the movie interviewing Alan—as well as Alan’s parents and former employer—to discover what drove the boy to heinous violence.
Shaffer and director Sidney Lumet embellish their storytelling with vivid flashbacks depicting past events in Alan’s life, eventually culminating in a dramatization of the horse-blinding rampage, which is exactly as hard to watch as you might imagine. The crux of Shaffer’s story is revealing the complex nature of Alan’s personal belief system. Blending the religious views of his parents, the confusing impulses of burgeoning sexuality, and the mystifying impact of an early childhood encounter with a horse, Alan constructs a bizarre psychosexual ideology in which “Equus,” the spirit of all horses, is a god overseeing Alan’s development. Martin learns that Alan has secretly enjoyed erotic experiences with horses, such as stripping off his clothes to ride horses bareback until he climaxes, and that Alan’s skewed vision of physicality triggered the bloodshed. Shaffer’s story, which the writer has said is wholly invented except for the blinding incident, represents an incredible leap of imagination.
Furthermore, Shaffer is in some sense insulated from criticism because the most outlandish proposition of the story—the notion that a boy fascinated by horses would intentionally mutilate six of them—is extracted from reality. Given a world where such things happen, can anything Shaffer presents by way of possible explanation be dismissed as too bizarre? Plus, because Shaffer complements Alan’s tragic journey with a completely fictional construct—Martin’s tortured emotional life—it becomes apparent that Shaffer is after something more than simply “explaining” a monstrous act. Among other things, Equus is a story about transference, since Martin seeks to heal Alan by absorbing the boy’s demons into his own wounded soul. This is grim stuff, and Lumet presents the narrative unflinchingly.
Burton is rendered naked emotionally during long monologues that demonstrate the actor’s remarkable facility for rendering both intricate language and bone-deep pain. Firth is rendered naked emotionally and physically, his frequent onscreen nudity a fitting way of representing Alan’s childlike vulnerability. (Supporting actress Jenny Agutter, always a brave trouper during revealing roles, adroitly counters Firth by showing an adult’s ownership of her nudity, which confuses Firth’s character terribly.) Some viewers will accept Shaffer’s narrative as a metaphor representing the mixed signals we receive in life about religion and sex, while others will discard the story as gruesome and pretentious. To say the least, this movie is not for everyone. Yet while Equus is bleak and excessive and grandiose and strange, its finest moments have searing power.