The Ruling Class [1972] [Criterion] (DVD)

Peter Medak

BUY $35.98

Amoeba Review

Edythe Smith 02/11/2011

Lady Claire Gurney: "How do you know you're God? Jack: "Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself." -- The Ruling Class It's hard to imagine Peter O'Toole still acting in today's cinema, mainly because he seems too great to be cast as an extra or even take up a voice role, as he did in the Disney/Pixar movie, Ratatouille. It would have been nice to see him still receiving leading rolls like his '60/'70s acting peers, such as Michael Caine, but the truth is, his essence is perhaps a bit grandiose. It worked wonders in movies like Becket, Laurence of Arabia, and Lord Jim, and it was given the most space and nourishment in The Ruling Class. In fact, I will firmly state that there could have been no one else, in the history of acting, who could pull off a role of such hysterics, and yet keep it level with the audiences' many emotions. Who else could pull off a character who is convinced they are Christ and Jack the Ripper, spew off-beat stutters in random order, and chirp like a bird in a single scene? This review might be giving away too much of the plot, but nothing could possibly prepare or give anyone a picture of how awesome this movie is. The movie takes place at the Gurney Estate in England, with the 13th Earl, Ralph, leading the action. He appears to be a leader of some importance in his society, but after a mass banquet you learn that he's not so right in the head. While dressed in a ballerina tutu and a colonial uniform, we see his nighttime ritual unfold. The trusted family butler (Arthur Lowe) enters his posh bedroom and displays a series of nooses, one of which he chooses every night to partake in a very bizarre game of mock suicide, done for the benefit of erotic asphyxiation. While attempting to hang himself for fun and safely return to a ladder, he accidentally knocks it down and ends up killing himself. The family is called in for the crisis, seen as such not because he has passed but because rumor has spread that he committed suicide and was discovered in his undergarments wearing a tutu. To add to his eccentricity is the discovery that he has changed his will, leaving a more than modest sum to the butler and donating large amounts of his fortune to liberal charities. To top it off, he has left the care of the estate and all its function to his estranged son, Jack (Peter O' Toole), who's been committed to an institution after being convinced for last eight years that he is Jesus Christ. Sir Charles Gurney (William Mervyn) is the living brother to the newly deceased, and in terms of the radical request of his dead brother, has the most at stake. His nephew Jack has been released from the institution and returned home to take his rightful place as the 14th Earl of Gurney. Dressed in a messiah's brown garbs and sporting the long, shiny locks of a saint, he introduces himself as his holiness and refuses to be called anything except "my Lord," "J.C." or any other nickname that Christ has. Sir Charles tries to have him recommitted, and fails when he discovers that his family's legacy hangs in the balance. He and the few surviving relatives decide to try and marry off young Jack in the hopes of producing an heir. The only problem is that besides being convinced that he's God, Jack also believes that he already has a wife, a fictional opera character named Marguerite. Sir Charles comes up with a plan to convince his mistress, Grace (Carolyn Seymour), to dress up as Marguerite and trick Jack into marrying her. The plan works and the two are wed by the Bishop (Alastair Sim), who just so happens to be a relative. Once the wedding passes and Jack's new wife is pregnant everyone assumes that the threat of losing the estate is over. Meanwhile, the doctor (Michael Bryant) who treated Jack in the institution has come up with some fairly unorthodox treatments and tries to cure him of his mental illness. His plan seems to work, and Jack and Grace give birth to a son. Underneath the new comfort of having the estate saved is a torn family, with one side, including the scheming Grace, now totally in love with Jack's new "rehabilitated" self. The other half, including the jealous Sir Charles, desperately wants to have him thrown back into the looney bin and raise the new heir with his mistress. Unbeknownst to the entire family is the fact that Jack is not exactly the new man he seems. Though his belief that he was Christ has, for the most part, passed, he now believes that he is Jack the Ripper. He's learned better than to flaunt his belief to the family, and his secrecy feeds his impulses until his newfound bloodlust goes over the edge. As someone who's a little obsessed with theology, I'd say that the most intriguing parts of this movie have to do with religion and the witty way that they try and compare it to both destruction and goodness. O'Toole's character is nuanced in a way that makes you hysterical and extremely protective over it. Being both good and evil makes the experience you have with the protagonist more complete, because everyone has come in contact with these sides of themselves. In that respect, the comedy of madness is funny because it's real, and something that could touch anyone at any point in their life. This movie twists that truth to go any way at any time, and it is this quality that adds both the desired tension and release that makes a movie really wonderful. On top of this, the movie has some outrageously funny musical numbers and dialogue. There are also a series of trippy hallucinations that Jack has that remind you of good '70s filmmaking. I've seen it many times over many years, and I still think that The Ruling Class is one of those perfect comedies, on par with movies like Harold and Maude or '70s Woody Allen films. Highly Recommended.


Peter O'Toole gives a tour de force performance as Jack, a man "cured" of believing he's God - only to become Jack the Ripper incarnate. Based on Peter Barnes' irreverent play, this darkly comic indictment of Britain's class system peers behind the closed doors of English aristocracy. Insanity, sadistic sarcasm, and black comedy - with just a touch of the Hollywood musical - are all featured in this beloved cult classic directed by Peter Medak.

Product Details

  • Starring: Alastair Sim, Peter O'Toole, Nigel Green, Coral Browne, James Villiers, Harry Andrews, Arthur Lowe
  • Format: Color, Dolby, DVD, NTSC, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Number of Discs: 1
  • Rating: PG
  • Label: The Criterion Collection
  • Release Date: 10/30/2001
  • Run Time: 154 minutes
  • Catalogue #: 132

Special Features

  • Commentary Track Featuring Peter O'Toole, Peter Medak, and Writer Peter Barnes
  • Peter Medak's Home Movies, Shot on Location for The Ruling Class
  • A Collection of Rare Publicity and Behind-The-Scenes Production Stills
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