As I sat down to rewatch The Ruling Class, the 1972 British black comedy, I remembered the first time I watched it. It was at the suggestion of a good friend, who said to my 19-year-old self, “If you consider yourself an Anglophile, you HAVE to see The Ruling Class.”
I took his advice and rented a VHS copy. I was blown away. A black comedy so dark it borders on the ultraviolet, The Ruling Class was also the first performance I ever saw from Peter O’Toole. And what a performance! He was nominated to an Oscar for it, and after seeing his turn as Jack, the Fourteenth Earl of Gurney, I became an obsessive fan…. I searched out everything he did, starting with Lawrence of Arabia (which was, amazingly, his first film role) and then seeing Creator, My Favorite Year… And more. More on his performance later.
After completing my rewatch, I’m struck with just how good The Ruling Class still is, how much it stands up. Based on a stage play, the film skewers English nobility and culture with such relish it is almost unfair to England. It is also a damning incitement of modern society in general, due to the not-so-subtle subtext that defines what we consider “sane” vs. what is “insane.” I’m going to get into some spoilers here, and if you haven’t seen the movie I recommend you do so before reading any further. The movie works best if you don’t have any real background on the movie and just let it “happen” to you. It’s too good a film for you to let me spoil it for you.
OK, if you are still reading you either have seen it, or don’t mind the premise and plot being spoiled. Fair enough.
Peter O’Toole inherits his father’s estate as well as his seat in the House of Lords when his father dies in an autoshartphyxiation accident. The problem is, O’Toole’s character Jack Gurney thinks he’s Jesus Christ. Well, this doesn’t sit we’ll with the Gurney family, who conspire to marry him and, once an heir is born, institutionalize him. Things don’t quite turn out as they plan, and Jack is “cured”… At least, everyone thinks he is.
Except he still thinks he’s God. Not the New Testament God… The Old Testament God. The Lord who smiteth. As the God of Love, he was shunned and ridiculed…. But now, he is accepted into the House of Lords. There is more too it, obviously, than I just described, because here are some moments that shouldn’t be spoiled.
Oh, and did I mention it was a musical? Because it is… And a pretty good one, at that.
When The Ruling Class came out forty years ago, it was praised by many critics and almost completely ignored by the moviegoing public. It’s reputation has only grown over the years, but it is still a movie that should get more attention. It is a surreal film, with crackling dialogue and an electrifying performance by O’Toole, basically playing two different characters in one film. It’s one of many films that, if made today, would be boycotted by a huge chunk of the country, even though the portrayal of Christ is not blasphemous in the least. That makes me sad.
So, in summary, The Ruling Class is a dark masterpiece, an amazing film that needs to be seen as many people as possible. It’s a wonderful film.