In this wickedly, caustic satire about the privilege and madness of England's ruling class Peter O' Toole plays Jack the 14th Earl of Gurney a man who believes that he is god.
After the death of his father Jack is awarded the family's estate and inheritance. He is taken from the local insane asylum – respectfully dressed as Christ - and brought to the palatial estate. There the family reluctantly takes him in believing that they can use him for a while and then push him aside. But they are in for a rude awakening when it turns out he has a much stronger personality then they and an equally valiant will.
Soon, though, he really begins to get on everyone's nerves. The other members of the family try to deal with him but they cannot accept his delusional rants. Jack's uncle (William Mervyn) decides the only way that they can come to terms with him is to marry him off to a beautiful young woman (Carolyn Seymour) and hope that she gives birth to a boy. In which case they can send Jack back to the asylum and wait for the boy to grow up and acquire the inheritance.
The one man who believes he can cure Jack is his psychiatrist, Dr Herder (Michael Bryant), a man who doesn't mind him the way he is but realizes that if he doesn't get him back to some level of normalcy Jack will spend his life locked away. In a desperate maneuver Dr Herder tries a curiously frightening method and shocks Jack enough that he seems cured forever. But really he just sends Jack 180 degrees the other direction: from a god of love (a happy hippie Christ) to a god of hate (a coarse conservative Jack the Ripper).
Ironically (or not), once Jack turns into Jack the Ripper incarnate he begins to fit right into upper class England: a country ruled by imperialists and white, upper crust good old boys. Jack becomes contemptible, more strict, more outspoken and reactionary and -- despite the fact that he has a killer streak in him – everybody loves him.
The Ruling Class was originally a play written by Peter Barnes so it is very literary and theatrical. But it also has a certain degree of fantasy: Amid all this drama are frequent whimsical scenes of hilarity and a few song-and-dance numbers. This technique serves the film quite well both because the actors are good stage performers and because the material fits well with the troubled mind of O'Toole's character. Director Peter Medak (who has worked a lot in Television and made another cult hit The Krays) opens the film up quite well.
The film has garnered a cult following over the years and it is such a solidly, well-made film that it's hard to understand why it hasn't gained a wider following. Possibly it's because it is a bit literary, very British and full of irony, three things American's have a difficult time grasping.
The film is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio and looks very good. The print was transferred from the original 35 mm interpositive and has been restored. As many 'theatrical films' are from England the overall look is a bit darker than lighter. This is due to the use of natural light and the fact that many of the scenes were shot indoors. There is a minor amount of artefact noticeable in a couple early scenes but it's not a problem and edge enhancement is minimal. The colors are more toward pastel than sharp but the image, which was transferred by Modern Videofilm in L.A, is clean with few scratches. The film was originally shot using a grainy stock rather than a glossy stock so it doesn't look pristine. Still, according to the sources I contacted at Criterion this is the best it has looked since its release.
Sound is presented in Monoaural (DD 1.0). Dolby would be nice but it wouldn't fit the film's original production and release. And even though the film has a few musical numbers and features a lot of dialogue it sounds fine - as long as you don't turn it up really loudly.
The most notable extra is the 30 additional minutes of footage that have been added to the film. The best extra though is the Commentary Track with Peter Medak, Peter O'Toole and Peter Barnes (three Peters). It's an excellent commentary because each of the three is engaging, intelligent and humorous. Plus, it's just the right blend of commentary since it covers the film's three most significant contributors: director, actor and screenwriter. Barnes talks about the significance of the play, O'Toole reminisces about the era (oh, the long nights of drinking) and about the people (many of them now dead) and Medak recalls the production. There is also Peter Medak's Home Movies which is about 40 minutes of silent 16mm footage that's of minor interest and really doesn't add much. Or to be more accurate it could have used a commentary track or something to liven it up a bit. Other extras include a collection of about 150 behind the scenes stills and the original trailer, which is rather, old and grainy looking.
There is justifiably a lot of hype for the current release of The Stunt Man - a Peter O'Toole's film from the same period. But for O'Toole fans The Ruling Class is just as important. He was at the top of his game when it was made and that makes the film more than worth a look. The one drawback (to some) is that the film has that dated 70's feel, which many today think is inferior since it's not glossy looking like today's films. But anyone astute enough to notice the superiority between most 70's films compared to most films made today will appreciate it. The DVD looks good, the presentation is well above average and -- if you're open-minded -- the film won't shock you but it may make you laugh.