Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A definite oddity from the early '70s, when the UK film was in a precipitous decline, The Ruling
Class is a blacker-than-black comedy with only one message to get across - that the British
aristocracy is an outmoded embarassment. The better English comedies, such as the Ealing series, had
dealt satirically with the issue for decades (Kind Hearts and Coronets) but The Ruling
Class had the advantage of being made when most of the rules of screen censorship had gone out
the window. Not a bit of of Peter Barnes' eclectic, irreverent, and sometimes hilariously profane
play had to be left behind when the picture was brought to the screen.
The 13th Earl of Gurney accidentally hangs himself while dressed in a military tunic
and a ballet tutu, an embarassment which throws the palatial Gurney Manor into a tizzy. Jack, the
successor and heir to everything Gurney, is a total nutcase who thinks he's Jesus Christ and even
relaxes on a ten-foot cross he erects in the middle of Gurney Hall. Naturally the various layabout
relatives, mainly Sir Charles (William Mervyn) start conniving to steer the title away from the
completely unpredictable Jack, using music-hall 'entertainer' Grace Shelley (Carolyn Seymour) to
seduce Jack into a marriage by pretending to be his lost love, The Lady of the Camelias. With the
eccentric Lady Claire (Coral Browne) trying to seduce him, the family doctor (Michael Bryant) trying
to shock him with a visit from the supernatural Electric Messiah (a wonderful Nigel Green), and the
silly-ass Dinsdale (James Villiers) worrying about what folks will think of the sometimes obscene
proceedings at Gurney Manor, Jack is having a tough time keeping about him those wits still in his
possession. Only the contemptously hilarious butler Daniel (Arthur Lowe), a closet Communist, seems
to be having a good time. Cured of his messianic complex, all goes well until Jack decides to take
his seat in the House of Lords, an atmosphere that brings out another, much more horrifying personality
in the newly 'cured' Earl.
By 1972, depending on who you talked to, the American film had either disintegrated into chaos, or was
in the middle of a new renaissance of creativity. The scrapping of the production code resulted in
plenty of movies being made that would not have been considered even possible before, and even
pornography had gained a ever-so-slight foothold on respectability.
The Ruling Class sneaked onto the scene as one of those off-the-wall things that hipsters
said you had to see, even if they couldn't explain it. (My two friends and I at a Westwood screening
seemed to be the only people in the audience not smoking dope.) A combination of sophomoric sub-Monty
Python jokes and bizarre Lewis Carroll-like speeches, this is basically a drawing-room comedy on acid.
It's a black comedy, where people you don't understand kill themselves and each other, where all the
characters seem to be broad caricatures to be lampooned. It does its best to be offensive, with all
manner of slights to the Church (not necessarily Christianity). The only thing like it is the more
successful (and far less classifiable) O Lucky Man from the same year. The Ruling Class
almost plays as an upscale Lindsay Anderson wanna-be, an idea underscored by the use of several favorites
from the Anderson club (Lowe, Graham Crowden). Mixing variety hall comedy, Hollywood songs and semi-
choreographed dance numbers, what's obviously desired is a double assault on the senses and the funny
There are laughs. Peter O'Toole's manic delivery sells his gibberish lines in much the desperate but
effective manner of What's New Pussycat?. He's very likeable as the lost-lamb Jesus, and
terrifying as the bloodless-faced Jack of the final reel. Alastair Sim has a good go at his stuttering,
swooning cleric. And Arthur Lowe gets the biggest laughs with his sneering (and wonderfully deadpan)
insults to the assembled nobility.
Deliberately, The Ruling Class is one very cold film. O'Toole is a
fun center, but we certainly don't have any emotional involvement with him. We don't know how to take
his dethronement by the Electric Messiah (just one of many stunning scenes), and his subsequent
character change comes off as arbitrary as everything else in the show. Is the Electric Messiah some
kind of analog for shock treatment? Is someone going to explain that this royal farce is all just
happening in Jack's befuddled mind? By the horrorshow ending, there's nothing left but the idea that
the writer of this thing really, really hates upperclass Brits enough to seriously call them murdering,
ghoulish zombies, a plague to be rid of as soon as possible.
So the thesis is there. At the time (1972), as an ardent student of MAD Magazine and The
National Lampoon, Savant still believed that all-out satire could change things. I read the
Lampoon's scathing comedic attacks on the Nixon administration and Vietnam, and thought
that expressing the truth would allow it to prevail. Well, it doesn't, and all the clever satire of the
period now just seems so much self-loathing and posturing. Reading this stuff, agreeing with it and
moving on allowed me the false assumption that a big segment of the population agreed with my
point of view.
The Ruling Class makes its points loud and clear, but not very cleverly. It's easy to
get attention when you're making fun of Jesus on the cross, etc., but people resent such tomfoolery
if there isn't some very strong reason for it, and 'aren't we so devilishly clever' is the only real
message we're left with. Perhaps a UK audience cheered this show and rushed out to demand that
their unfair class system be scuttled ... but I doubt it.
Handsomely photographed (like most pictures from the era, this DVD easily looks far better than the
miserable release prints we saw), The Ruling Class is not directed with any great distinction.
The emphasis is on extra-wide shots and closeups, and Mr. Medak's blocking and camera placement
seem arbitrary most of the time. The musical moments (Jesus cakewalking to The Varsity Drag)
kind of just sit there. The zoom lens does a lot of work in various jaunts in the gardens. Medak
overuses his crane to underline too many scenes .... just as things are winding up or O'Toole gets to the
author's message, up the camera goes, time and again. Some strong visuals seem openly cribbed, such as the
spinning dance where the manor interior segues seamlessly into a Whitechapel mews (Vertigo?) or the
camera's dive into a closeup of O'Toole's mouth bellowing an endless scream (Night of the Hunter).
Criterion's DVD of The Ruling Class is beautifully produced. The 16:9 transfer restores the
show to its full length (a lot was cut in the US, although I can't remember what). There's a generous helping of
Medak's home movies from the set, a stills section, and a commentary track with
director Medak, O'Toole and writer Barnes. They chat in a low-key manner about the history of the
play (Barnes wanted Jack to be a midget at first!) and O'Toole has nice monologues about the actors
he worked with, and offers his take on the 'kitchen sink' genre of English films. The talk isn't going to
pull viewers in from other rooms, but The Ruling Class fans will love it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Ruling Class rates:
Supplements: Plenty, see final paragraph
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: October 31, 2001
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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