When I think of 'The Ruling Class', the first word that comes to my mind is 'bizarre'. Critics and movie goers alike tend to remain divided over whether to call this film a work of genius or just plain monstrous insanity. The film didn't necessarily conform to the notions of cinematic brilliance at the time of its release. On one hand it was a commercial failure and on the other hand it garnered Peter O'toole his fourth Oscar nomination for 'Best Actor'. These days, 'The Ruling Class' is regarded as a cult hit; one of those films that was way ahead of its time and now deserves the distinction of belonging to 'The Criterion Collection'. Rumor has it that a severely edited version was released in the United States in the seventies. The 'Criterion' edition is supposed to contain all the original and uncut footage and is freely available on 'Hulu'.
'The Ruling Class' chronicles the trials and tribulations of the aristocratic Gurney family as it struggles to resume a 'normal upper class English existence' following the embarrassing death of the 13th Earl of Gurney. The dead Earl, in his will, has appointed his son, Jack (Peter O'toole), to be his successor. Fairly routine, one might assume, except that Jack is paranoid schizophrenic and believes himself to be the second coming of Jesus Christ and refers to himself as 'The God of Love'. As 'The God of Love', Jack preaches about 'truth and universal love'; he cavorts around, breaks into song and dance, spends most of his time propped up on a giant cross that he calls 'the Watusi walking stick', declares that pomp and riches are the root of all evil and even attempts to perform a miracle or two. The family, his uncle in particular, aren't too thrilled about a takeover by a potential Bolshevik. In order to save themselves any societal embarrassment, they decide that if Jack can be made to produce a male heir and can be declared 'insane' by a 'master of lunacy', then he can be locked away in a facility and lose all say in matters of the family estate. A hasty, and rather dubious, wedding is arranged between Jack and a gold digging young woman. As a last resort, Jack's psychiatrist performs some unconventional experiments on him in order to find a 'cure'. Following a particularly harrowing encounter with another paranoid schizophrenic, Jack is 'cured'. Except that he now thinks he is 'Jack the Ripper'.
The film takes a rather dramatic turn at this point, as does Peter O'toole's performance. It is as though there are two actors playing distinct characters in two completely different films. The new, 'improved' and misogynistic Jack is the model of perfection. He laments the decline of social mores and the abolition of capital punishment. He appeals for a return to the glorious days of the aristocratic reign of terror. The latter part of the film is as disturbing as the first half is amusing.
One thing that is quite evident, is that Peter Medak, the director, gave the actors complete artistic freedom to interpret their roles as they pleased. The acting tends to be rather theatrical. Proponents of the 'avant garde' and 'film noir' movements are likely to find this movie annoying and overly histrionic. It is said that the actors drank themselves to oblivion while filming, and it's amazing that they got any work done at all. One can appreciate and marvel at the sheer versatility of Peter O'toole's talent. From his impeccable comic timing to his decidedly dreadful mania,with all that singing and dancing in the bargain. Peter Barnes' script swings from being witty to being ridiculous. It takes a very blatant dig at the English ruling class and is not very subtle in depicting 'The House of Lords' as a room full of cadaverous old fogies who yearn for lost power. The supporting cast is simply marvelous. My personal favorites are Alistair Sim, who plays the blundering bishop, and Arthur Lowe, who plays the brazen and secretly anarchic butler.
Irrespective of whether one likes or loathes 'The Ruling Class', how such a film passed through the censors and the moral police is inconceivable. As someone once pointed out, present day actors would think twice before accepting a role that Peter O'toole played for free. I leave you with two clips from the film. The first one is of Peter O'toole playing 'The God of Love' and the second one is of him playing 'Jack the Ripper'.