Equus (1977) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Author Peter Shaffer and his twin brother Anthony, also a playwright/screenwriter, were quite the rage in the English stage and screen of the 1960s and 70s. Brother Anthony wrote Sleuth, Frenzy, and The Wicker Man, and adapted some Agatha Christie novels. Peter wrote Amadeus, Royal Hunt of the Sun, and Equus.
The idea for Equus was generated by a chance encounter. Peter Shaffer was on a holiday in the English countryside when he read a local news story about a boy who had blinded six horses at a nearby stable. Why, he wondered, would a boy do such a thing? There had to be a reason. Even if the boy was insane, surely he was following some form of demented logic of his own. Without waiting for the real story to emerge, starting only with this item in a local newspaper, Shaffer used his imagination to create an award- winning play.


Complete nudity from all angles from Peter Firth and Jenny Agutter.

Tuna hit all the analytical highlights below, and I agree completely in every detail. The film is talky, too slow, and Richard Burton is at his hammy worst in bellowing his pompous soliloquies at the camera. I know that Peter Shaffer is the genius who wrote Amadeus, but I knew Amadeus, Senator Equus, and you are no Amadeus.

The sad thing is that this should have been a good movie. All of those philosophical ruminations from Burton were unnecessary and many of them were probably out of character for a trained psychiatrist. For example, all of Burton's endless nattering about how he should not make the boy normal by removing what makes him special - no way. If you're talking about a dotty patient who is deluded and profoundly happy, and who represents no danger to himself or society, maybe such thoughts can be a part of a psychiatrist's self-reflection. But Burton's patient here is unhappy, knows there is something wrong with him, and wants to deal with it, even though he doesn't know exactly how to articulate his feelings in so many words. He wants to be "cured", and society needs him to be "cured", because he just stuck a scythe into the eyes of six horses, and nobody knows what other violence might be inside of him. This is not a harmless, inspirational guy like the character in They Might Be Giants. In addition, a confident psychiatrist would have to believe that he could get to the core of his patient's violence and delusions without stripping away his passion for life. Therefore, virtually all of Burton's philosophizing could have been cut, and absolutely 100% of his pompous monologues could have been cut. If you slash this script back to about 100 minutes, have it drive quickly to the point, stick to the kid's story, and eliminate Burton's bellowing and scenery-chewing, you have the rudiments of a good, interesting mystery which can be revealed gradually like a complex puzzle, and can provide intellectual stimulation for the audience.

Oh, well, if this film were made today, it would be shortened that way, but it couldn't have happened then. 1977 was another time. Back in the 60s and 70s, they were not yet really ready to distinguish acting from oratory, thus explaining just about all of Burton's career. Burton, a powerful stage presence, but arguably the worst screen actor in history, a guy who makes Bill Shatner seem subtle and understated, was nominated for a bunch of awards for good acting. Such was the fashion of the time, when a resonant voice, energetic posturing, and good diction were equated with "classy" performing. People actually believed (and still believe, judging from the IMDb comments), that the film was actually improved by Burton's rhetorical pontifications delivered sonorously to the camera.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen letterboxed 1.66:1.

  • no meaningful features

  • The transfer looks rather nice, but the DVD is virtually devoid of special features, and, frankly, this film could use commentary.

   .... ah, the way we were.

Compare that to today. Patrick Stewart is a similar but far greater actor than Burton. He has the voice and the presence of a Burton, but none of Burton's weaknesses. He doesn't bellow, doesn't overact, is far more graceful than Burton, remembers his lines, and concentrates on his character rather than the sound of his beautiful voice. If Stewart had been a star in the 60s and 70s, he'd have a suitcase full of Oscars. In today's world, he's just kind of a sophisticated, intelligent, highly respected curiosity, and nobody really seems to know how to use him effectively.


Equus is an adaptation from a very disturbing stage play, and concerns a 17 year old boy (Peter Firth) who suddenly blinds six horses with a metal spike. He is referred to psychologist Richard Burton. Burton eventually gets to the bottom of the boy's problems, which involve a strange mixture of strict religious upbringing, and a love of horses. Along the way, Burton realizes that this boy has experienced more passion than he himself ever has, and wonders if curing the boy, and making him "Normal" is really a disservice.

Spoilers Ahead

The boy became obsessed with horses at a young age, and his personal God became "Equus", a spirit who lived inside every horse, at least according to his theology. After he reached puberty, his relationship with horses became sexual. In the stable where he worked weekends, he would sneak out at night, and ride a horse bareback in the nude until he climaxed, then spend hours cuddling with the horse. The problem came when Jenny Agutter offered himself to him in the stable. He couldn't perform with a woman because Equus was watching. His only solution was to blind the horses, so Equus couldn't see him.

End Spoilers

On stage, the horses were played by actors wearing horse heads. Those who saw both say the play was far more powerful. While Equus was probably a daring, disturbing and effective stage play, it didn't translate well to the screen.  While the soliloquy is a time honored stage tradition, there is a reason films are called MOTION pictures, and long speeches to the camera don't help the pace or hold most people's interest. Granted, when you need someone to deliver 137 minutes of pretentious dialogue, much of it directly to the camera, Richard Burton is a pretty good choice. Indeed, Burton and Firth won Golden Globes best actor and best supporting actor respectively, and were nominated for Oscars as well.

There are some interesting concepts here, and the film was fairly daring in terms of nudity and animal gore for 1977, but it was just too talky for me. I had trouble staying awake.

The Critics Vote

  • Burton and Firth won Golden Globes for acting. Agutter won a BAFTA for acting. The film was nominated for four other BAFTA awards, including two more supporting performers, music, and screenplay. Burton, Firth and the screenwriter were nominated for Oscars.

The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this film is a C (Tuna) to C- (Scoop). Intelligent movie in many ways, but monotonous and most useful if you're having trouble sleeping.

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