In 1926 D.H.Lawrence wrote a chilling little tale, a mere smattering of pages, that present one family's descent into a maelstrom of greed, materialistic tendencies and sexual fascinations that swirl into a black hole from which no escape will be possible without catastrophic results ensuing.
An upper middle class English family finds themselves in the immediate years after World War II in a situation that is far above that of many of their fellow countrymen. A large home, a nanny, a handyman, decor that looks straight out an architectural digest, the best clothes, artwork, jewelry; and still it is not enough to keep Hester (Valerie Hobson) and Richard Grahame (Hugh Sinclair) from squandering all the money from Richard's job on more facets to the pyramid of 'airs' and expected position that so drive them.
Hester's wanting to 'keep up appearances' at all costs has led her husband to gamble a large amount of money at his club, which he is unable to pay. Enter Hester's brother, Oscar Creswell, or Uncle Oscar (Ronald Squire) to the children. He offers to honour the debt to the club, as he is also a member who even sometimes 'enjoys the members,' and the thought of being branded with the same broad stoke as his brother-in-law (guilt by association) is something that he will not accept.
The eldest child, Paul (John Howard Davies), bears witness to the infallibilities of his parents, but becomes determined to help his mother out of the dilemma that she perpetually finds herself in, by being 'lucky.' During an afternoon walk with her, she has made an unknown, fatal decision to set in motion, a disturbing series of events that will culminate in tragedy, by the mere mention to Paul that his father is 'not lucky.' Determined to win the love and affection that is absent from the demeanor of his mother, the wheels begin to turn like gears grinding with outbursts and spurts before achieving their end result.
Another Christmas is upon the family, perhaps bigger and larger than the year before, complete with the requisite material non-necessities that feel wonderful at the moment and yet fade before the embers of the fire have paid their last respects. Paul has been gifted with a huge rocking horse, that upon opening, displays a garish face that has none of the warmth that one might expect. Rather, upon first viewing, we are struck with an ominous foreboding to come, but unable to put a finger on just what or how the unthinkable will happen.
Bassett (John Mills), the handyman, rode a bit as a young man, and when he helps Master Paul to take the horse upstairs, he regales him with tales of what it was like to be in the saddle and all that it encompassed. Paul hangs on every word that Bassett utters; all the time lapping hungrily at the fountain of information spewing forth for his benefit. Little does he suspect, with his juvenile facilities, just what a simple object as the horse has in store for him.
Constant threats of bankruptcy, a bailiff requiring payment, and the humiliation of Hester taking her expensive clothing to a grizzled, strange moneylender in a squalid basement for immediate cash; all of these have done nothing to lessen her mantra of 'there has to be more money,' ringing like a Tibetan bell throughout the better part of the film. She is of the persuasion that without it, life as she has knows it, would not be worth a hill of beans.
The house is as strange as this tale, as it whispers with vocal noises, suppositions and the voice of his mother, bastardized as it tells Paul and only Paul, that more money must be gotten. The conduit to these much needed funds is to be the rocking horse and the ability of Paul to 'get there' as he rides it.
Uncle Oscar and Bassett will become as much a part of this march when it is discovered that Paul seems to have the uncanny ability to predict race horse winners after a gallop on his steed, although the two above mentioned adults never are let in on Paul's secret. The main thing is that he get the money to make things better for his mother and to make her happy. What Paul never realizes, though, is that her fascination with money has seduced her to the point that she is beyond all reason and nothing will abate her desire. There will never be enough to satisfy her.
Does one view this story as a tale of horror, of sex as only Lawrence could portray it with vast Freudian overtones, or as a simple story gone astray to the unsuspecting filmgoer? Cases can be made for all three, but with the clear 'winner' being sex and its interpretations.
Hester, while never considering the abandonment of her husband or family, exposes emotions to a young and impressionable Paul, that never should have been conveyed. She exists in a marriage without true love, and her only way of attaining happiness and love is via money. She stumbles when it come to the absolutes -- her family.
Richard is the impotent provider, who, to escape his own private hell, gambles to forget the utter hopelessness of a situation that he refuses to rein in, as much as he tells his wife to contain her spending habits.
Enter the ripe and fruitful mind of Paul, eager to please and to plant his affections with his mother at the expense of his father and his ability to provide for his family.
Volumes of words spent on the classification of sex and how it resides heavily throughout this tale are readily available. Paul's mother and the house become one, for the latter is the showcase for all her dreams, and as such become inanimate objects. Paul's horse is the symbol for masturbation and release as he rides 'to get there.' He lusts for the affection of his mother and in his doomed attempt to consolidate it, he fails as all his dreams come crashing down around him.
Valerie Hobson's performance is the quintessential upper class lady whose greed forces her to eventually realize the horrible error of her ways. Her scenes with John Howard Davies are exquisite when the two of them are together. A small sense of motherliness escapes, but is captured yet again as she gets back to business as she knows it.
John Howard Davies projects a cautionary eerieness about him, as the put upon son, mentally being called upon to live in an adult world not of his making. There is credible sincerity in his portrayal and the evidence is submitted as he attempts to still the demons that begin to haunt him.
Ronald Squire as Uncle Oscar submits for our considerations, a portrait of the rich, elder brother and confidante who just as greedily seeks to line his own pockets with profit as he is to tell his sister that she must curb her obsessions. Even when the thrust of the story has made a turn for the worst, his few moments of screen time, as he salivates over whether or not to place a bet wrench him back from true feelings to the outcast position of lust for more and more.
Anthony Pelissier's direction and screenplay stay the course and present us with a gallery of representations and emotions that all too readily exhibit the stratas of the human animal, and the mind boggling expenditures we are willing to spend to achieve what we think are our goals in life.
Cinematography by Desmond Dickinson in glorious black and white, reveals the hidden declarations that inhabit the world of the Grahame family. The use of the camera as it shows us the dimension that Paul achieves as he rides his horse -- the room pulling to and fro, from all angles and the uncanny evocation of what lies ahead and in the shadows bring this neglected medium to full fruition.
The cautionary tale of a dysfunctional family; a father relying too heavily on others to make up the deficit, an uncle who continually bails the family out but only with conditions, a mother who refuses to err on the side of caution and instead cradles avarice to her bosom, and a son who unwittingly pays the ultimate price for his concerns. Is this not a Lawrencian tale, brimming with frustrations and sexual calculations?
The Rocking Horse Winner is a decided winner. It is sadly overlooked, when it should be in the winner's circle. Make the journey, seek it out. It's a haunting story that will stay with you long after you have seen it.
We are left with this thought as the last reel ends, 'be careful what you wish for. It might just come true.' Need I say more?