Sunday, April 2, 2017


SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

One of my favorite filmmakers, Sidney Lumet, directed this 1977 film based on the Tony Award winning play by Peter Shaffer, who also wrote the screenplay. It did not do well at the box office, probably because it is very talky, with dense, long, soul-searching speeches, delivered by the psychiatrist, Martin Dysart (Richard Burton, in his last Oscar-nominated role). Despite the problems adapting the work to the screen, it offers up a banquet of food for thought.
We have two characters here trying to deal with primal needs, the psychiatrist and his patient. One of Dysart’s friends, a court magistrate, Hesther Saloman (Eileen Atkins), wants Dysart, who works at a mental hospital, to treat a seventeen-year-old youth named Alan Strang (Peter Firth). (Put an “e” at the end of his name and you get “strange,” and this boy definitely fits that word). Alan blinded horses at a stable where he worked as a volunteer. (“Equus” is the Latin word for horse, and in this movie, bestows an ancient, primal association to the animal). Actually, the first image we see in the movie is of a metal spike with a metallic horse’s head at the top, and a bridle over its head. There is then a cut to a boy and a horse nuzzling each other. These images symbolize Alan’s complex relationship with the animal. At first Alan is hostile and impedes any communication by singing television commercial jingles. He shoves his head into the back of Dysart’s file cabinet, suggesting that he is just another case to be filed away later, without any meaningful connection made between the two.

Dysart visits Alan’s parents, and it is here we begin to gain some insight into what motivates Alan. His mother, Dora Strang (Joan Plowright), is a religious person. When Dysart asks her how the boy learned about sex, she said she told her son that “sex is not just a biological matter, but a spiritual one as well. If God willed, he would fall in love one day … That his task was to prepare himself for the most important happening of his life. And, after that, if he was lucky, he would come to love a higher love still.” So, Mrs. Strang preached that human love would be bestowed upon her son, but that it was sort of a dress rehearsal for the spiritual love he would experience with God. Alan’s father, Frank Strang (Colin Blakely), says the one real problem in their house was his wife’s overemphasis on religion, which he felt just led to “bad sex.” Alan’s mother would read a story to her son about a horse which no one could ride. She says that horses are noble and mighty, and are mentioned in the bible, in “The Book of Job.” In mythology, she tells Dysart, the horse and rider were one creature, a type of god. She tells Dysart that Alan loved horses, and there is a picture of one on the slanted ceiling of his room. We also learn that his father, feeling his son was being immersed in religion, took down a picture of Christ going to Calvary. The young Alan cried, but his crying stopped with the replacement drawing. The horse, then, is associated with Jesus in Alan’s mind. So, we see that Alan grew up in a home where there was a conflict between the advocating of spiritual love on one hand, and physical sexual indulgence on the other. Alan’s compromise was to pursue a merging with a physical creature, a horse, which was an esteemed creation, that could lead to a mythic ecstatic religious consummation. It should be noted that in the arts, horses are often used as symbols of male virility. Indeed, we watch Dysart looking at art pieces which show horses with their necks thrusting outward like erect penises sprouting out between the legs of their riders.
But if Allan loved horses, why did he commit this horrible act? Some of the problem may be due to those mixed signals from his parents. In a session with Dysart, Alan says his first encounter with a horse was at six years of age on a beach. In the flashback, a rider on his horse approaches the boy as he builds a sand castle (a reference to youthful fantasy?). Alan smiles and wants to touch the horse. The rider helps him mount the animal (mounting has sexual connotations). The man shows him how to handle the horse. In a way, this stranger is initiating him into a sexual experience (which some have said means there is a homosexual subtext in the film). Alan confesses to Dysart that he liked the feeling of warmth between his legs as he rode the horse, and enjoyed the feeling of power, suggesting sexual potency. But then his father interrupted (coitus interruptus?) the ride, understandably concerned about his young son riding off with this stranger, saying the animal is “dangerous.” Since the mother had told him of the nobility of horses and the joining with one in a mythic story was akin to an apotheosis, she is not the one to give the warning. It is the non-transcendent-thinking father who stops the communion with the noble creature. Alan says he never rode a horse again.
Alan’s association of his horse god, Equus, with Jesus can be seen in the imagery Lumet provides us. There is a picture of Christ going to Calvary, where Jesus is a prisoner being led to his crucifixion. The horse in a way is also in chains, with the bridle and its bit between the mouth. Alan writes some messages that Dysart discovers, and one says, in reference to the horse, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” In Alan’s mind, the horse, by bearing its riders, carries their sins on its back, as did Christ taking on the weight of the sins of the world on his shoulders. But then must the horse be sacrificed, as was Jesus? Alan dictates on some tapes so he doesn’t have to talk directly to Dysart. He says on one of them that horses sacrifice for humans all of the time. They will gallop until they die if the riders don’t stop them. He says the animals “live for us,” pointing to their selflessness. But, he also says, “God is always seeing,” and if the horse is associated with God, then we have a hint of a connection to the blinding of the horses.

Alan’s desire to join physically and spiritually to Equus is observed in a scene related by his father to Dysart. Mr. Strang thought he heard chanting coming from Alan’s bedroom. He heard a list of “begats,” which links the horse to the bible, but also refers to sexual procreation, thus merging the spiritual and fleshly preoccupation of Alan. He peered in his son’s bedroom and saw Alan putting a “manbit,” a rope, in his mouth, like a horse’s bit. He wraps the rest of the rope around his head like a bridle. Alan stares at the picture of the horse on the wall, and imaginatively whips his side, rocking on his bed, as if riding, as he mentally becomes one with the god he worships.

Mr. Strang also tells Dysart he believes Alan was with a girl on the night of the blinding. He knows this fact because he ran into his son and a girl named Jill (Jenny Agutter), who volunteered at the stables and taught the youth how to care for the horses, including grooming with its sexually implied deep stroking of the animal. Dysart discovers from Alan that Jill also took it upon herself to initiate Alan into sexual matters. She invited him (significantly while she is riding a horse, again mixing the spiritual and sexual drives) to an adult theater. Mr. Strang, who was there for his own prurient interests, is alarmed to see his boy there. Outside, he makes up a story, saying he was at the theater to make promotional signs, but when he realized that the theater was showing pornography, he was going to leave. While making this excuse for his presence there, he can’t look Alan in the face. Although the father wants to indulge his lust, he also shows shame for that desire, which sends mixed messages to his already confused son.

Dysart visits the man who owns the horses, Dalton (Harry Andrews). He said Alan took very good care of the horses before the attack. But, he says he wondered if Alan rode the horses at night, despite his stating that he did not want to ride the animals. He suspected this possibility since the horses were sweaty in the morning, and their stalls were not as unkempt as they would have been had they been there all night. Alan had steadfastly denied he had been riding the horses. But, Dysart feels that subconsciously Alan wants to confront the truth of what he has done. Dysart gives him aspirin, pretending it is a truth drug to facilitate Alan’s desire to tell his story. Alan now admits that he took the horses out for night rides. He uses Christian religious language as he relates his actions, saying he gave sugar to the horse, making the action analogous to a “last supper.” He says the horse “takes my sins.” But, he also sheds his clothes, touches the horse all over, and even places himself in a stall, trying to become a horse. He then mounts the animal. As he describes his ride, he says he was “stiff in the wind,” and tells how he wants to be “inside” the horse so that they can be “one person.” As he tells Dysart about the experience, he produces orgasmic screams that culminate in climatic ecstasy. The related episode ends with an “amen.” In this scene, we witness Alan’s need for the union of the sensual and the spiritual.

Alan tells Dysart that after encountering his father at the theater, he and Jill went to the stables, which he calls Equus’ “temple, His holiest of hollies.” The place stresses the unfulfillment of basic human lust for Alan. Jill undressed as did Alan, and they started to have sex, but Alan was unable to consummate, as the horses stomped and snorted around them, reminding Alan this tryst with Jill was not the godly joining he desires. He sent her away. He heard the voice of Equus saying to Alan, “You are mine.” Equus was then viewed as a jealous god, who, as was said before, was “always seeing.” He saw Alan’s weakness with Jill, his infidelity, his betrayal to the god he worships. Possibly out of guilt, Alan blinded the horses. But, because he has joined with Equus, hasn’t he really also harmed himself, damaging his spirit? Dysart consoles Alan, and tells him by confronting his traumatic actions, he can now, with a great deal of effort, be healed.
But, there are two stories here. Besides Alan’s we have Dysart’s. The film starts with his narration, his talking directly to us, the audience. In addition to Allan, we also receive Dysart’s “confession,” (the word carrying religious meaning). By him speaking to us, we are, in a way, his therapists, and the psychiatrist is our patient. He tells us right from the beginning, “I am lost,” and that he was “primed for the confrontation,” as his working with Alan was his last straw. He talks about having dreams where he wears an ancient mask as a priest in a Greek ritual eviscerating children. Toward the end of the dream, his mask slips. He makes the analogy to his psychiatric profession, saying that he carves up the psyche of his patients, and the slipping off of the mask implies he is doubting the efficiency of his treatment.
 In his sessions with Alan, the boy reverses the clinical process, and he asks Dysart questions. He reveals his dream to Alan. He admits to having no children, which Alan concludes means he is not having any sex. Dysart tells his friend Hesther that he has no connection with his wife, no intimacy. He didn’t want to bring children into a cold marriage. He takes trips to Greece, but he adopts the distant role of a scholar, a tourist, just visiting, but not an emotionally involved participant. He questions what he is doing to Alan. Hesther says his job is to take away Alan’s pain. Dysart says that in order to do that he must cut out that which makes the boy passionate. He notes that the word “passion” originally meant suffering to earn what you want to attain, that is why we call Jesus’ journey the Passion of the Christ. (The word has come also to have a sexual meaning, since it refers to urgent desire). Dysart says that Alan is involved in a passionate worship. It is as if Alan is saying to Dysart, “At least I galloped, how about you?” In a session, Alan, again reversing their roles, gets Dysart to say that he would like to leave the treatment room and never return, admitting that he does not like what he does. Alan asks him why he is still there, to which Dysart says it is because Alan is unhappy. The boy rightly says to his psychiatrist, “So are you.”

Indeed, Dysart says that his job is to be the priest of the god of what is normal (which reminds us of the dream he told the audience and Alan). “Normal” has both good and bad aspects. “A good smile in a child’s eyes” is normal behavior, but that look can turn into a “dead stare” in adults as they sacrifice their individuality to society’s rules as to what is normal. Acceptable behavior is beneficial when something ordinary is seen as beautiful. But, when what we worship is just to be average, fit in, the results can be “lethal” to the human soul. Maybe Dysart would say that gods can be both beautiful and lethal, like humans, and maybe that is why some may believe that humans were made in God’s image, and perhaps, vice versa.
 Dysart in the end summarizes his loss of purpose. He says that in order to make Alan painless, he had to rip out his soul, rendering the boy a “ghost” a shade of his once passionate self. He sees himself as a butcher, removing the uniqueness from his patients. If Alan maimed literally, then so, too, did Dysart, figuratively. He has taken away the adoration of something awesome, because there cannot be what is “worshiped without a worshiper.” Dysart sees himself wearing his own bridle that makes him subservient to society’s norms.

The next film is Mississippi Burning.

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