D. H. Lawrence's primary literary reputation rests on novels like "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and "The Rainbow"--novels that explore sex, sexuality, the politics of sexuality, and social responses to sexuality. I once knew a fellow who referred to the writer as "Dick Head Lawrence" because of Lawrence's preoccupation with sex. (The D. H. actually stands for David Herbert.) What many people fail to realize is that Lawrence's examination of sexuality is not pornographic. Rather, he seizes Freud's theories about sex and applies them to the human condition in a way that a sexually repressed Britain was unwilling to fathom. Repression and prudishness led to the branding of Lawrence as a moral degenerate when he should have been hailed as a perceptive revolutionary who placed Freudian concepts in realistic applications.
Ironically, Lawrence's best-known works ("Chatterley", "The Rainbow") are probably among his least-accomplished. Personally, I champion the novel "Sons and Lovers" and the short story "The Rocking Horse Winner" as his most masterful creations. Both "Sons and Lovers" and "Rocking Horse" feature the author at his most eloquently concise, before he became long-winded with "Chatterley" and "The Rainbow". Both "Sons and Lovers" and "Rocking Horse" also fully develop their themes--namely, how Oedipal relationships between sons and mothers stunt the overall development of the former and how, paradoxically, men are expected to be "manly" after years of growing up under the watch of their mothers and their nannies rather than their fathers. The validity of Lawrence's claims can be debated elsewhere, but within the context of his worlds, his heroes must break free of the Oedipal chain in order to self-actualize.
A refresher: psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's theory of the Oedipus complex comes from the ancient Greek Oedipus plays, in which Oedipus kills his father and marries his mother (unwittingly). The Oedipus complex is a strong attachment between a mother and her son that creates problems due to a stunting of the son's maturation process (the son does not "grow up" in order to remain emotionally dependent on the mother) as well as competition between the son and the father for the mother's affections. (The father-daughter equivalent of the Oedipus complex is the Electra crisis, named for a girl in Greek mythology who had an intense relationship with her father.)
In Lawrence's "The Rocking Horse Winner", Paul refuses to outgrow the use of his rocking horse. Therefore, he doesn't behave the way that boys his age ought to behave. His mother relies so much on the money that he gives her that she (almost willfully) neglects to ensure that Paul progresses from young boy to young man.
Paul's mother acts coldly towards her son and two daughters. Paul hears whispers in the house that sound like her mother saying, "We need more money." Therefore, he begins to place bets on horse races in order to generate income that would satisfy his mother's materialistic desires. Paul manages to guess the winners of horse races by riding on his rocking horse to the point of exhaustion; then, covered in sweat, he staggers off the horse and mutters the winning horse's name in a pant. To Paul's chagrin, the more money that he gives to his mother, the more whispers he hears.
I once wrote a paper about "The Rocking Horse Winner" in high school. I was in the tenth grade, to be exact. My research yielded the idea that, given Paul's fury, loneliness, and desperation, his riding of the rocking horse is a metaphor for masturbation. In a sense, one can surmise that Paul compensates for his mother's materialism (i.e. her immaturity) by masturbating. Masturbation itself is an act that is perceived as biologically wasteful since its by-products are not used to perpetuate the human race. Paul's masturbatory activities are equally futile as well. No matter how much money he wins for his mother, she is never satisfied. More to the point, Paul's money can not buy his mother's love. Lawrence's anti-hero is frustrated in his attempts to fulfill the Oedipal bond.
My article is supposed to be a review of Home Vision's DVD edition of Anthony Pelissier's 1950 film "The Rocking Horse Winner", but I suppose that I have much more to say about the narrative rather than about the movie. Pelissier's adaptation of Lawrence's short story is a competent production with several provocative touches--eerie shots of the rocking horse's ghastly head, oversized silhouettes of Paul frantically riding the rocking horse like a maniac, etc. There's a touch of science fiction, too--as if Paul's riding on the horse could be analogous to the use of Pre-Cognitives in Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report". The literalization of Paul's hearing voices adds an element of horror films to the adaptation. However, Pelissier's film is rather flat and uninspired. All the elements in the short story are in the movie, but the filmmakers never do much with it. Also, even at 91 minutes, the movie overstays its welcome. Some passages are unnecessary, and the "just desserts" ending created specifically for the film trashes the morally ambiguous tone of Lawrence's short story. The movie would've been better than it is now had Pelissier ended it where Lawrence ended his short story.
A final estimation of "The Rocking Horse Winner" (the narrative in any form) reveals that sometimes, a rocking horse is NOT just a rocking horse.
The 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) picture appears to be incorrectly framed--words in the opening credits have been cut off at the sides of the screen. However, since the "true" aspect ratio of the image is probably 1.37:1, viewers won't be missing much of the original framing. I was pleasantly surprised by how sharp the video looked, but sharp clarity allows viewers to see every imperfection on a film negative. Therefore, you will notice damage to the source print like slight burn marks, vertical scratches (probably from over-use in projectors), bits and pieces of debris, and even water damage to some frames. Thankfully, the image is basically dust-free, so even if you can see how the print has deteriorated, you can still appreciate how much work was done to clean the print.
Alas, I have to give the Dolby Digital 1.0 English audio track a relatively poor mark. I had to raise the volume of my sound system to higher-than-normal levels in order to be able to understand what the actors were saying. When I dialed up the volume, I could hear plenty of hissing throughout the entire movie. There are a couple of pops and drop-outs to suggest that some audio elements have been damaged beyond repair, and some sound effects and music cues are either too soft or too blaringly harsh on the ears.
Disappointingly, the disc does not offer any subtitles or closed captions.
Home Vision distributes The Criterion Collection's DVDs, so it should come as no surprise to anyone that the bonus materials on the "The Rocking Horse Winner" DVD are rather academic in nature. The extras here are meant to reflect different approaches to adapting D. H. Lawrence's story, and these approaches are meant to comment on the creation of Pelissier's 1950 film.
The first extra on the disc is Michael Almereyda's 20-minute short film "The Rocking Horse Winner", an adaptation set in the 1990s shot with a Fisher Price PXL 2000 camera. The PXL 2000 was meant for use by children, and its technology is appropriately primitive--black-and-white pixels capture moving images, and the damn thing gave me a headache after 3 minutes. The short film won a couple of awards, but I couldn't watch the whole thing.
Much easier on the eyes is a radio broadcast of a public reading of Lawrence's short story. A certain John Shea reads the entire text at a symposium honoring the short story as an art form. This is an audio-only extra, with Shea's reading playing against a DVD menu screen.
Believe it or not, "The Rocking Horse Winner" also inspired something called a "chamber opera". From what I can tell, a chamber opera features a small cast of singers and only a handful of instruments rather than a full singing troupe and a full orchestra. Bethan Scourse Jones (librettist) and Andrew McBirnie's (composer) music has been excerpted onto the DVD. Like the radio reading of the short story, the music plays against a DVD menu screen. This would've been a great extra had we been able to see how the opera was physically staged.
A glossy booklet provides a note on how "The Rocking Horse Winner" has been interpreted, notes on Almereyda's short film, notes on the radio broadcast reading of the short story, libretto excerpts for the chamber opera, the complete text of Lawrence's short story, and chapter listings.
I recommend director Anthony Pelissier's "The Rocking Horse Winner" because it relates a story rich with thematic meaning. However, the film is really mostly a competent production rather than a must-see. You're probably better off reading D. H. Lawrence's short story. The eloquent compactness of Lawrence's prose and dialogue supplies more subtexts and gothic undertones than Pelissier's visual adaptation. Since Home Vision's DVD release provides Pelissier's movie, three additional adaptations, and the text of Lawrence's story, you probably won't find a more varied representation of "The Rocking Horse Winner" anywhere else. The main feature is worth a 6 out of 10, as are the bonuses combined, but the movie and the bonuses merit a 7 out of 10 together.