On Sunday, I watched Equus (1977) starring Richard Burton and Peter Firth. This is a powerful movie.
When I first heard about Equus, I thought it would focus entirely on the character of Alan Strang, an English teenager who blinds six horses and is sent to a mental institution by the courts. However, the movie (I have not seen the play, though I have started reading its script) seems to focus more on the character or Dr. Dysart, the psychiatrist who analyzes Alan Strang to find out his motives for blinding the horses in the stables where he worked. In short, he was insane, but what made him insane?
I won’t go into a lot of detail about what Dr. Dysart finds or how he finds it, because that is the mystery to be solved. Watching how both these characters change is fascinating. The movie analyzes both, perhaps giving a bit more emphasis on Dr. Dysart. I think this is because Dr. Dysart represents an educated audience looking into the soul of Alan Strang. What Dysart finds effects him deeply just as I think it effects an audience deeply, because what Dr. Dysart finds makes him examine his own relationship to the world and to God as well as reflecting on his own existence. At one point, Dr. Dysart begins to so intensely understand Alan’s viewpoint that Ithe tells Mrs. Dysart that he actually envies Alan.
Both the movie and the play were written by Peter Shaffer, who won a Tony award for it and for his following play Amadeus, which was made into a much more successful movie than Equus.
The movie was directed by Sydney Lumet. An interesting difference between the movie and the play is that the movie is staged very realistically in offices, homes, a stable, etc. but the the play’s script has the stage set in a very minimalist, in a sense, abstract fashion. I would love to see a performance of Equus. The minimalism would keep the audiences mind(s) focused on the characters and their interrelationships and not on the set or on anything that is peripheral or tangential and of no importance to the narrative.
I have to wonder how Peter Shaffer developed the character of Alan Strang. He wrote an exceptional portrayal of a madman and how he became mad. I understand that he based the play on a news article he read about a young Englishman who blinded six horses and then started loo,king into that story. That character is brought to life vividly by Peter Firth. I have to ask myself as well how Peter Firth developed his portrayal of Alan Strang. The ideas of Shaffer and Firth on this character seemed to mesh wonderfully for an awe-inspiring performance.
It is interesting to note that, in one sense, this movies shows how the change in one man stimulated the change in another man.
I am no actor, but to me the acting in this movie was top-notch. Richard Burton gave a performance that on par with his performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Peter Firth played Alan Strang.
All in all, this is a fascinating movie with strong performances that reach deeply into the characters’ souls and will very likely reach into the souls of the audience as well and cause them to reflect on their own existences just as Dr. Dysart does.