[Originally published in Movietone News 22, April 1973]
Any movie that runs two-and-one-half-hours-plus yet doesn’t have one glancing at his watch has to have something going for it. And The Ruling Class does, as long as deep thoughts about the medium don’t enter into it. The medium gets kicked about as freely as most other conventions: theatrical. social, familial, and the resulting film has the exuberance one might associate with a first-rate college revue. The collegians involved include some of the most reliable mainstays of the British stage and screen, and the genre is that mainstayingest of them all, the what-fun-it-is-to-roast-the-upper-classes genre that has made the fame and fortune of many a literary radical. The difference is that The Ruling Class shows itself to be aware of the implicit, frequently unacknowledged corollary: and-whom-could-we-pick-on-if-they-weren’t-around? The answer turns out to be: just about anybody.
Things start happening when the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) treats himself to his favorite bedtime setting-up exercise: kicking into space, dressed in ballet skirt, grenadier jacket, and tri-cornered hat, at the end of a silken hangman’s noose. His faithful butler Tucker (Arthur Lowe) is supposed to have positioned a high stool nearby so His Lordship can regain a foothold at the brink of extinction and regale the world with his ecstatic visions of Beyond the Vale. This particular evening the stool gets knocked askew and the earldom passes on to the (literally) hanging judge’s son Jack (Peter O’Toole).
Jack’s been on the inside—of an asylum—and returns to the world serene in the knowledge that he is Christ (he’ll answer to “J.C.”) and also God the Father (because he has found that when he prays to God he is invariably talking to himself). Some of his relations would like to see him separated from control of the Gurney estate and set about arranging it—a complicated process that involves marrying him off to the consort of both his late father and his uncle (William Mervyn) and encouraging him to sire an heir with utmost haste. In the course of all this the audience of course sides with the hilariously self-hyped Highest against the scheming in-laws, with a side portion of appreciation for the old Marxist butler, the other legate of the l3th Earl who, though 30,000 pounds richer, elects to stay on at his old job and slip the verbal shaft to his masters in the most public manner possible.
Then something happens. The madman licks his madness—or at least alters its external appearance, becoming the consummate English peer in public while in private swapping J.C. for Jack the Ripper, god of vengeance in ways sometimes sexual, sometimes political, but always murderous. In the end no one has escaped Jack’s divine anger, including the heroically disrespectful Tucker, and the banshee wail of the last of his victims is continued in the infantile sob of the 15th Earl of Gurney, yet another Jack of who-knows-what-persuasion.
Structurally the film will not bear close analysis: its sophisticated intention of wrenching the audience this way and that until they capitulate and accept this vision of an incestuous ruling-class screwjob is only imperfectly served; the film really opts for safe dodginess—stylistically, morally, and sociopolitically. But from moment to moment the possibilities are devastatingly good and much of the execution is exhilarating, in its ingenuity and artistic daring as much as its ultimate irresponsibility. Peter O’Toole’s role successfully exploits his offscreen public persona as manic jackoff.
Copyright © 1973 Richard T. Jameson
THE RULING CLASS
Direction: Peter Medak. Screenplay: Peter Barnes, after his play. Cinematography: Ken Hodges.
The Players: Peter O’Toole, Arthur Lowe, Carolyn Seymour, William Mervyn, Coral Browne, Alastair Sim, James Villiers, Harry Andrews.