Equus (film)

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Theatrical release poster
Directed by Sidney Lumet
Produced by Elliott Kastner
Lester Persky
Denis Holt
Screenplay by Peter Shaffer
Based on Equus
by Peter Shaffer
Starring Richard Burton
Peter Firth
Jenny Agutter
Joan Plowright
Colin Blakely
Music by Richard Rodney Bennett
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Edited by John Victor-Smith
Winkast Film Productions
Distributed by United Artists
Release date
  • 14 October 1977 (1977-10-14) (United Kingdom)
  • 16 October 1977 (1977-10-16) (United States)
Running time
137 minutes
Country United Kingdom
United States
Language English

Equus is a 1977 British-U.S. drama film directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Peter Shaffer, based on his play of the same name. The film stars Richard Burton, Peter Firth, Colin Blakely, Joan Plowright, Eileen Atkins, and Jenny Agutter. The story concerns a psychiatrist treating a teenager who has blinded horses in a stable, attempting to find the root of his horse worship.

Lumet's translation of the acclaimed play to a cinematic version incorporated some realism, in the use of real horses as opposed to human actors, and a graphic portrayal of the blinding. Despite some criticism of this approach, the film received positive reviews, with awards for Burton, Firth and Agutter.


A magistrate asks psychiatrist Martin Dysart, who works in a "provincial" hospital in Hampshire, England, to treat a 17-year-old stable boy named Alan Strang, who blinded six horses with a scythe. With Alan only singing TV commercial jingles, Martin meets with the boy's parents, the non-religious Frank Strang and Christian fundamentalist mother Dora. Dora has taught her son the basics of sex and that God sees all. Frank also discloses to Martin that he witnessed Alan, late at night in his room, chanting a series of names in Biblical genealogy-fashion, culminating in a god named Equus.

Alan shares his earliest memory of a horse, when he was six and a man approached him with a horse named Trojan. Alan imagined the horse spoke to him, and said his true name was Equus, and this was the name of all horses. The man allowed Alan to ride Trojan, which the boy found thrilling, but his parents reacted negatively and injured him taking him off the horse. Martin also meets the stable manager, who reveals Alan secured his job through another employee, Jill. Devastated at the horses' injuries she indirectly caused, Jill has taken medical leave.

Eventually, Alan admits to Martin that he would secretly take the horses away from the stable at night to ride them nude, chanting prayers to Equus. Martin envies the boy's passionate paganism, in comparison to his own life, where he has ceased intimacies with his wife and is plagued by nightmares of ritualistically slaughtering children in Homer's Greece, wearing the Mask of Agamemnon. Given an aspirin serving as a placebo "truth drug," Alan further reveals Jill tempted him to go to a Swedish pornographic film, after which they attempted to have sex at the stable. After driving Jill away, Alan, tormented that Equus sees all and is a jealous god, blinded the horses. Martin is troubled by the fact that he can treat Alan to take away his pain, but in the process, he will deprive the boy of his passion.




Director Sidney Lumet saw the play Equus when it was first performed in London between 1973 and 1975, and also saw productions with Anthony Perkins and Richard Burton.[1] Lumet found that Perkins' performance was excellent, but felt the stage productions failed to capture the conflict of the character Martin Dysart, which he believed was meant to represent writer Peter Shaffer's inner turmoil.[1]

Shaffer and Lumet spent more than one year preparing the screenplay before filming began.[2] Much of the dialogue in Shaffer's play is preserved, accurately, in the screenplay.[3]

Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson were considered for the part of Dysart in the film version. However, Burton's stage performance won over audiences, despite concerns about his alcoholism.[4]


In stage productions, the horses are portrayed by human actors, often heavily-built, athletic men wearing tribal-style masks.[4] Lumet did not believe this could adequately be done in a film version, concluding a degree of realism was required, "because the reality he [Alan] was being watched in was going to create the dilemma within him."[5] For horse-related stunts, the filmmakers consulted Yakima Canutt, who had previously worked on almost all of John Wayne's early western films.[6] The horse riding and blinding scenes were shot initially in natural light before moving to unrealistic lighting, to capture conflicting Apollonian and Dionysian world views.[5] With cinematographer Oswald Morris and production designer Tony Walton, Lumet developed a complex colour scheme avoiding easily identifiable colours, preferring to combine colours to emphasise duality.[7]

The scene where Firth rides the horse nude was filmed in one take, in an uninterrupted shot lasting four and a half minutes.[8] Whereas the blinding scene was done in pantomime on stage, Lumet opted to graphically display it to convey the horror. Much of the footage shot depicted the horses' heads morphing into faces of Jesus, Dora Strang and Frank Strang, and a glimpse of a Balinese dagger. However, Lumet decided this was unsubtle and cut much of this, only keeping the dagger to portray ancient impulses.[2] The scenes in the stable and Alan's room were filmed in the Toronto International Film Studio in Kleinburg, Ontario.[9]


Critical reception[edit]

Richard Burton received positive reviews for his performance and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor.

Lumet acknowledged that the film was "very vulnerable to attack," and critics were bound to ask why a film was needed when the play was "perfect," but initial reviews were "respectful."[1] Roger Ebert gave the film two and a half stars, arguing the realism in actual horses and their blinding, "strangely enough, get in the way of the play's own reality: the obsession that the two characters come to share"; however, Ebert complimented Burton and Firth on their performances.[10] Vincent Canby, chief critic for The New York Times, wrote that he preferred the theatricality of the stage production, but "Now, after seeing Sidney Lumet's comparatively realistic film version, it's possible to appreciate Mr. Shaffer's text for what it is— an extraordinarily skillful, passionate inquiry into the entire Freudian method." Canby also found the movie's realism excessive, and said that "the movie exhausts us with information," specifically citing the scene where Alan rides a horse bareback as giving the viewers "anticlimactic detail." Canby also concluded "This is the best Burton performance since Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"[11] Molly Haskell's review in New York remarked that the film came "not a moment too soon" for fans of the play,[12] and that Burton was eloquent, Firth "brings out the ugly and unpleasant qualities of the boy," while Jenny Agutter "is rudely treated as the girl who, in another of those preposterous conventions of sixties movies, offers herself nude to the sensitive youth only to have him spurn her."[13] Jesse Kornbluth, writing for Texas Monthly, called the film "an unqualified success," even though he felt the play was only of interest to "middle-brow" audiences.[14]

English Professor James M. Welsh felt using real horses in the film was understandable, but argued the outdoor scenes infringed on the "abstract theatrical design" that gave the play its creativity.[3] Welsh also felt the explicit blinding was "potentially repulsive," and "much of the spirit of the play is lost as a consequence."[15]

The film received generally positive reviews, currently holding a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 17 reviews.[16] In 2005, the American Film Institute nominated Richard Rodney Bennett's music for AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.[17]


Award Category Recipient(s) Result Ref(s)
Academy Awards Best Actor Richard Burton Nominated [18]
Best Supporting Actor Peter Firth Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Peter Shaffer Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Screenplay Peter Shaffer Nominated [19]
Best Supporting Actress Jenny Agutter Won
Best Supporting Actress Joan Plowright Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Colin Blakely Nominated
Best Music Richard Rodney Bennett Nominated
Golden Globes Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Richard Burton Won [20]
Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture Peter Firth Won
National Board of Review Top Ten Films Equus Won [21]


  1. ^ a b c Ralph Applebaum, "Colour and Concepts," Sidney Lumet: Interviews, University Press of Mississippi, 2006, p. 74.
  2. ^ a b Applebaum, p. 76.
  3. ^ a b Thomas L. Erskine and James M. Welsh, Video Versions: Film Adaptations of Plays on Video, Greenwood Press, 2000, p. 111.
  4. ^ a b Smith, Richard Harland. "Equus (1977)". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  5. ^ a b Applebaum, p. 75.
  6. ^ Aaron Barlow, "The Greatest Cowboy Star You've Never Heard Of," Film and Television Stardom, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008, p. 301.
  7. ^ Applebaum, pp. 75-76.
  8. ^ Frank R. Cunningham, Sidney Lumet: Film and Literary Vision, Second Ed., The University Press of Kentucky, 2001, p. 30.
  9. ^ Applebaum, p. 77.
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger (9 November 1977). "Equus". Rogerebert.com. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 
  11. ^ Canby, Vincent (17 October 1977). "'Equus': Film of a Different Color". The New York Times. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 
  12. ^ Molly Haskell, "An Unstable Fable," New York, 7 November 1977, p. 91.
  13. ^ Haskell, p. 92.
  14. ^ Jesse Kornbluth, "The Two Horsemen of Sidney Lumet," Texas Monthly, December 1977, p. 152.
  15. ^ Welsh, p. 112.
  16. ^ "Equus (1977)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 
  17. ^ "AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees" (PDF). Retrieved 6 August 2016. 
  18. ^ "The 50th Academy Awards (1978) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 1 April 2012. 
  19. ^ "Film in 1978". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 
  20. ^ "Equus". Golden Globe Awards. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 
  21. ^ "1977 Award Winners". National Board of Review. Retrieved 23 October 2016. 

External links[edit]