From the Horse’s Mouth

One of the challenges of bringing plays to the screen is how to “open up” the stage-bound dialogue and events so that it feels and sounds more like a film. And when a play depends as much on its imaginative staging as Peter Shaffer’s EQUUS does, that job is made even more difficult.

Richard Burton stars as a troubled psychiatrist who must discover the reasons for a disturbed teenager’s (Peter Firth, reprising his stage role) blinding of six horses. Shaffer’s psychobabble hasn’t aged particularly well and the film loses some of its power in Sidney Lumet’s stilted direction, but the performances by Firth and Burton (both Oscar-nominated) are superb.

In a film that doesn’t leave much room for music, Richard Rodney Bennett’s subtle score fills the emotional void that its characters cannot express. Bennett scored the music with a hint of Baroque flavor for violas, cellos, and basses, saying that he wanted to “get away from the massed violin sound” and focus on the “grave intensity” of the violas in their upper register. The score rises and falls, yearning for meaning and lending further gravitas to the film and never succumbing to the more disturbing images onscreen.

Equus soundtrack
“Main Title/The Hospital”

The original Ryko CD release surrounded the score with Burton’s magnificent monologues. (Many of the Ryko discs featured “bonus” dialogue tracks.) When Kritzerland re-released the score (on a double with John Barry’s THE WHISPERERS) last year, producer Bruce Kimmel thankfully separated out the instrumental tracks in the brief 22-minute score, followed by bonus tracks of the monologues.

While EQUUS may not be the great play that everyone thought it was in the mid-1970s, the film has much to recommend in the performances, Shaffer’s command of language and Bennett’s lovely, yet somber, score.

  1. I’ve always thought the film version of the play was unjustly maligned simply because Lumet made a courageous choice to luridly present the horse blindings. I thought the movie was a pychosexual tour-de-force when I saw it in it’s initial theatrical release, and remember a very uncomfortable audience.
    One thing for sure: Lumet made a brilliant decision if he was the one who chose Bennett to do the score. The mood of the music is perfect.
    I wish somebody would tackle a CD release of Bennett’s music for NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA, a sumptuous work he composed, around the same time, for Franklin Schaffner’s lavish bio-epic.

    1. I just watched film the other night in preparation for the post and I still think the piece suffers with its transfer to the “reality” of cinema, not necessarily with the horse blindings though. I’m not sure how the film as a whole could have been done more effectively or if it always would have had problems. But Burton and Firth are exceptional, and the rest of the British cast (all of whom I’d forgotten were in this) are also quite good. It’s an uncomfortable movie to watch, even today, and Bennett’s score is pitch perfect in sustaining the mood.

      I too would love to see a proper release of NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. But if someone is going to do, do it right. Don’t just throw out the album and call it a day. I don’t remember how much more music is in the film, but I’m sure the three-hour film has more than the 30-40 minutes of LP running time. I keep hoping this one turns up someday.

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