Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O'Toole), presents a problem to his family: he is, quite frankly, utterly insane. But since his belief that he is Jesus Christ (or "J.C.," as the family calls him) doesn't prevent him from coming into his inheritance and title, his grasping uncle, who wants to hold the reins of the Gurney fortune, begins conniving to get him committed to a mental institution... after he's produced an heir, of course. In the meanwhile, Jack's well-intentioned psychiatrist attempts to cure his delusion of grandeur, but in the process causes Jack to develop a more dangerous delusion.
Unfortunately, The Ruling Class is not as interesting as it sounds. The film, directed by Peter Medak, appears to be a satire on a loose variety of subjects: British upper-class society, politics, social ideas of madness and sanity, psychiatry, and organized religion. But the diffuse target means that it's never quite clear where the film is going or what the point is supposed to be.
It's also a strange mix of genres: black comedy, drama, farce, and musical. This genre-bending seems to have had an odd effect on the actors' performances, as none of them seem to know what to do with their parts. The characters muddle through various scenes that require them to alternately argue with each other, perform musical numbers, and deliver speeches to the camera. O'Toole, in fact, can't really be said to act his part so much as to proclaim it: he strides through this movie with a glassy look on his face, performing set pieces in a series of monologues directed primarily at the audience.
The Ruling Class is certainly an ambitious film, playing around with the conventions of film, tackling some potentially interesting subjects, and blurring the boundaries of genre, but it's too scattershot to really work. I can see that if its satire were more focused, if the characters were more realized as characters instead of caricatures, and if the extravagant set-pieces such as the musical numbers were more tightly woven into the story, then The Ruling Class might have been an intriguing experiment. As it is, though, it plays as if it were an extended improvisation, with the actors as well as the director making it up as they all went along, inventing secondary characters and bringing them on the set as the thought occurred to them. The Ruling Class is a curiosity but not a successful film.
The Criterion edition of the film marks its first appearance in the U.S. at its original running time of 154 minutes. For its previous U.S. theatrical release, it had been trimmed to 148 minutes, and then cut further to 141 minutes for release on VHS.
The back-cover copy of the DVD announces that the DVD transfer was supervised by director Peter Medak; if that's the case, I can only assume that either Medak wasn't particularly picky about the transfer quality, or the original print was in such poor condition that the transfer is really the best they could do.
The Ruling Class appears in anamorphic widescreen, at its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Colors are bright and vivid, but that's about it for positive elements of the transfer, which is disappointing overall. The print is fairly noisy, and exhibits many flaws and scratches throughout the film, including a recurring heavy vertical scratch in the center of the image. The contrast is adequate in normally-lit scenes, but is much worse when any darker scene takes place against a brightly-lit background. Lastly, fairly strong edge enhancement is visible throughout.
The soundtrack of The Ruling Class is presented in Dolby Digital mono, and makes for a disagreeable listening experience. At normal conversational volume, the sound has a slightly muffled quality, and as soon as the volume goes even slightly higher (as it frequently does), the sound becomes harsh and distorted. The volume level is also inconsistent: quiet scenes tend to be too quiet, with the dialogue difficult to hear, while other scenes are overly loud.
The best special feature on the DVD is the audio commentary track, which features Peter O'Toole, director Peter Medak, and writer Peter Barnes. Also included is a section of "home movies" from Medak's collection; these are silent 16mm movies that provide a glimpse onto the set of The Ruling Class, with actors doing things like playing cricket, wandering around, and talking (without sound, of course). Without a soundtrack or voiced-over commentary, this feature is for hardcore fans only.
The Ruling Class is a very peculiar film. Very, very peculiar. Anyone who is not already familiar with the film is advised to steer well clear of it; even if you liked O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, his appearance in The Ruling Class isn't worth suffering through the film for. This is clearly the kind of film that becomes, as the back-cover copy proclaims, a cult classic: there are bound to be some viewers out there who will adore it for precisely the same reasons why it doesn't really work as a movie. For these cult fans of the film, however, the Criterion edition is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it does present the full 154-minute original version of the film; on the other hand, the transfer is of a quite low quality. It might be better than VHS, but it's certainly not up to current DVD standards.