Screen Gems

If a guy rides a horse naked, does that make him gay?


Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Horseplay: Equus

Playwright Peter Shaffer caused a sensation back in 1973 with this play about a psychiatrist treating a teenage boy after he blinded a stable full of horses. The conversation about the premise and “meaning” of Equus continued when the movie adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet, hit screens in 1977.

The plot: a neurotic psychiatrist named Dysart (Richard Burton) begins to treat 17-year-old Alan (Peter Firth) after the latter blinds the aforementioned horses. Dysart becomes intrigued by the convoluted way in which Alan mixes Biblical theology with his love of horses, eventually worshiping an all-powerful horse god named Equus. Dysart also discovers that Alan has some kind of sexual fascination with horses–riding them naked at night, or self-flagellating and masturbating while reciting strange horse genealogies. Treating Alan brings new excitement to Dysart’s mundane practice, though as he wanders deeper into Alan’s psyche, he begins to question his own medical ethics.

Equus scored Oscar nominations for Shaffer, Burton and Firth, as audiences and critics continued to debate the symbolism of the plot. Should it be taken at face value–that Alan is a zoophile? Or, given that Shaffer is a gay man, does Equus criticize sexual shame around homosexuality? Kink? Does Dysart’s disillusionment come from knowing the futility and evil of conversion therapy?

Dear reader, we don’t know. Equus has a smoke-like quality to it–every time it seems like we can grasp the story’s deeper meanings, they seem to just slip away. In this case, that makes it all the more compelling. It helps, of course, to have two sublime actors such as Burton and Firth (who reprised his stage role for the film) carrying the material. It helps too that Shaffer is one of the great playwrights of our time–his dialogue gives the proceedings a poetic urgency, while never coming off obvious or didactic. We recommend the film as an intriguing mediation on sex and shame–something we queers know all too well. Here’s a film that captivates with its performances and dialogue. What it all means is as intriguing as it is elusive.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Hey MGM/Amazon, isn’t it time to get this one on Prime?