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The Ruling Class is not so much a film ahead of its time as it is a film out of time. With its potent and heady mix of seemingly disparate film genres (horror film, social satire, slapstick and the Hollywood musical) and its antecedents from the world of the theater (Jacobean, Elizabethan, and the avant-garde), opera (La Traviata) and the vaudeville stage, The Ruling Class demands to be noticed and taken account of. You may love it or hate it, but you’ll never forget the experience, just as all of the characters who encounter our "hero" Jack will never forget theirs.

Based upon Peter Barnes’s play of the same name (he also penned the screenplay), Hungarian-born director Peter Medak’s film is ostensibly a satire of the class system in England. But five minutes into the film — as soon as we see the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) die from auto-erotic asphyxiation after he has just given a speech at the House of Lords — we realize that this is not going to be your average social satire. And with the introduction of our protagonist Jack — who has been released from a mental institution so that he can claim his rightful place as the lord of his father’s estate — there is no doubt that we have left the cinema of the conventional. Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, believes that he is the Heavenly Father incarnate and only answers to the names J.C. Jehovah or any of the other "nine billion names for God."

But it would be rash and misleading to think this was the only film breaking new ground at the time. Lindsey Anderson had already unleashed his anarchic if. . . . (1968) onto the world, Nicholas Roeg and Donald Cammel had made their phantasmagoric crime-head film Performance (1970) and Stanley Kubrick had delivered his A Clockwork Orange (1971) to unsuspecting audiences. Of course, arthouse directors such as Bunuel, Fellini and Godard had also mined provocative and surreal material like this before. But considering the state of British cinema at the time, which consisted mainly of kitchen sink dramas that focused on the miserable lives of the working classes, period horror films from the Hammer and Amicus stables, or the juvenile Carry On films, it is not difficult to see how The Ruling Class stood out.

In what could arguably be his finest hour outside of Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole plays the role to the hilt, unafraid to take chances or appear unlikable, naïve, horrifying, mad, or fragile. Like his character, there is a spark of divine knowing in his eyes at all time. There is no doubt that Jack is indeed a paranoid schizophrenic, but that doesn’t mean that he is not in total control of the situation. Only when Jack is forced by his cousin Dinsdale (James Villiers) to face the "reality" of who he really is or when Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant) carts in the equally mad "Electric Messiah" McKyle (Nigel Green), to zap Jack into sanity, does Jack lose his hold on his personality and spiral into catatonia.

Barnes’s and Medak’s assertion that Jack is only truly sane when he is the flower-power Christ (who proclaims that everything is love and that we should all have sex to be saved) is naïve and definitely a thematic residue of the 1960s. Although much of the first half of the film is a play off the sentiment that the "insane" Jack is really sane and that his stuffy and "sane" family are downright pathological, much of the satire is forced, obvious, and not very enlightening. Many of the scenes run on too long or seem unnecessarily static, due no doubt to its stage-bound birth.

That’s not to say that it isn’t funny. There are some great bits — Jack’s stream-of-consciousness rants to the houseguests, his idle moments perched atop the gigantic cross hanging in one of the manor’s rooms. Also entertaining is the plethora of word play and verbal barbs flung by any of the main characters, especially Tucker (Arthur Lowe), the anarchist-minded man servant, or Lady Claire (Coral Browne), who is both attracted to and perplexed by Jack.

But it is in the second part of the film, when our hero reconfigures his personality into that of Jack the Ripper, and proceeds to reclaim his sanity in the eyes of others after he spouts a number of ultra-conservative views (the loss of Britain’s aristocratic heritage, among other things), that the film unleashes its full ferocious assault on the status quo — and upon the viewer. Jack’s new guise as the legendary Whitechapel butcher also brings to mind the figure of Sir Oswald Mosley, who during the 1930s formed and mobilized the BUF (British Union of Fascists) and "took politics into the streets." Mosley was a rabid anti-Semite who looked to Germany’s National Socialism as a harbinger of a new dawn.

Jack, likewise, believes that his newfound iron-fisted philosophy will herald a new way of life. But during his speech to the House of Lords — as he speaks, he has visions of cobwebs draping the room, with the other lords literally transfigured into skeletons — there is no question where he’ll lead us.

In contrast to the earlier part of the film, the second part is steely-eyed, even more caustic, and ultimately ironic. Jack has now recreated himself as Death incarnate. What previously was a message of love has now become a knife to the heart. And as each character descends to meet their fate, Jack becomes messiah to the New World Disorder.

Like many of Mike Leigh’s later satires on class, The Ruling Class gains dramatic weight when the darker elements come flooding in. Its unpleasant truths make it hard to watch, but we can’t tear ourselves away. O’Toole is so magnificent in the role. Gone are the loopy hippie sentiments, gone the laughter. He is reserved, polite, honest, and opinionated as the Ripper. And everyone loves him, although underneath the socially acceptable façade awaits a howl as dark as Hell itself. Barnes and Medak may not always maintain control of the film, but there are more than enough glimpses into the true anarchic brilliance of their creation to make this trip well worth taking — even after the screaming has stopped.

The Criterion Collection’s DVD is superb and allows, for the first time in America, the film to be seen in its original 154 minute running time. When originally released in the United States, the film was available at a 130 minute running time. Later, for its 1983 video release, the film was available "uncut" at a longer 141 minute cut. The disc also contains a great commentary track with star O’Toole, director Medak, and writer Barnes. Unfortunately, all three participants were recorded separately, so there is no interaction between them. Regardless, the track is thoroughly entertaining and informative. Also included are some of Peter Medak’s home movies — shot on the set of the film — an array of production stills, and the original theatrical trailer.


The Ruling Class is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new 16x9 widescreen digital transfer, supervised by director Peter Medak, and restored to the original full-length version (154 minutes), never before available in the America. The disc includes a a commentary track featuring Peter O'Toole, Peter Medak, and writer Peter Barnes; Peter Medak's home movies, shot on the set of The Ruling Class; and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.