Judge Mike Pinsky took that class once. His grade? 37 centimeters.
"I was only trying to do what's expected me. I recall as a sign of normalcy in our circle to slaughter anything that moves."—Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O'Toole)
The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) bemoans the loss of England's empire to his fellows at the Society of St. George. Ah, England, "this teeming womb of privilege," as the Earl raises his glass. But the womb from which Gurney's family springs? Most of the sons are dead across the sea, victims of colonial ambition. And the ones who remain are a collection of pompous fools. The poor Earl! He needs some rest and relaxation.
So for fun, he puts on a tutu and a military uniform and hangs himself.
Oh, to be in England, where God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Unless you are Peter Barnes, of course. In his world, God is an empty word thrown about by addled church fathers like Bishop Lampton (Alastair Sim, in his most finely timed performance since Ebenezer Scrooge). And the world itself is caught in a struggle between empty-headed politicians like the Earl's nephew Dinsdale (James Villiers) or ranting revolutionaries like the butler Tucker (Arthur Lowe). To paraphrase Philip K. Dick, it is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.
Enter Jack (Peter O'Toole). The estranged 14th Earl is "a paranoid schizophrenic Gurney who thinks he's God"—to which frustrated Uncle Charles (William Mervyn) balks, "But we're always been Church of England!" Clearly, Jack is another failure of the British public schools and "Bolshie" propaganda. How else would he have learned to spout such preposterous notions as universal love?
Explaining the rambling plot of The Ruling Class, Peter Medak's adaptation of Peter Barnes's play (starring Peter O'Toole—you figure it out) may itself be an exercise in insanity. Characters break into musical numbers at the drop of a hat or speak to the audience. Jack's beloved Grace (Carolyn Seymour) performs a sultry striptease while announcing, in deadpan exposition, her sordid background to the audience. Jack battles another paranoid would-be deity who can shoot electricity from his fingers—and Jack hallucinates he is attacked by a gorilla in a top hat! All of this surrealism was not uncommon on British movie screens of the time (watch any Beatles movie), but unlike other contemporary psychedelic satires (The Magic Christian, for instance), The Ruling Class succeeds in drawing strong characters out of its chaos and stereotypes of the British upper classes.
Much of this can be credited to powerful work by Peter O'Toole. Although insane, Jack quickly becomes the moral center of the film. Even after his identity transforms from Jesus to Jack the Ripper—from God of Love to God of Vengeance—we still find ourselves struggling to empathize with him and his attempts to find peace in a world which insists on pressuring him into conformity. "I must learn to keep my mouth shut, bowels open, and never volunteer," he seethes. He longs to please, to conform to other's standards in order to make them love him. He proudly joins a foxhunt and offers an observation on the true nature of colonialism: "I recall, as a sign of normalcy, our circle to slaughter anything that moves." Is it any wonder that he finds himself (as Jack the Ripper) accepted wholeheartedly by his upper-class peers, the lords of an empire of corpses?
The Ruling Class, like most successful satires, swings wildly from joy to terror. Peter Barnes's screenplay borrows from absurdist theater and contemporary psychedelic pop culture, like most of his contemporaries, but also Brecht and Artaud. The musical numbers, theatrical asides, and brutality all push us away, trying to force us to treat the characters and situations as mere satirical targets, even as the performers draw us back in. For the most part, the film sustains its balance, even if its structure seems a little too sprawling at times and its targets seem a little dated to an audience thirty years later.
Much of the ability of The Ruling Class to balance the extremes of Peter Barnes's script can be credited to Peter Medak's deft handling of his cast. As we can see in a selection of 16mm production footage, somewhat overlong at 40 minutes, the cast built a fine sense of chemistry through impromptu cricket matches and friendly bonding between scenes. The major drawback to this behind-the-scenes footage is that Criterion presents it with no music or narration (40 minutes of silent, scratchy home movies—whew!) or even intertitles to help us identify the crew. A photo gallery, which does offer a few title cards here and there, shows off publicity shots of the cast and extensive production photos, including shots from the film's premieres at London and Cannes.
But the gem of Criterion's supplements is, as you have already guessed, another of their fine commentary tracks. The three Peters all participate. Medak discusses the film's production history and a few technical details, and still seems a bit surprised by the British sense of self-mockery: members of the upper class actually volunteered to help and loved the satirical premise of the story. He also talks about the edits made to the original version of the film, including cut scenes restored for this edition. Peter Barnes talks more about the politics of the play (and the film, of course), discussing his own hatred for the upper class. To him, Jack's two identities take on a clearly left-wing cast: Jesus Christ as working class hero, and Jack the Ripper as scourge of the working class. The real prize on this commentary track though is Peter O'Toole, who seems as sharp as thirty years ago. He has quite a lot of fun watching his antics on screen and tells entertaining stories about the manor house used in the film (whose owner was a bit of a radical) and the rest of the cast.
While the specific targets of The Ruling Class may seem somewhat esoteric to today's audiences, its sharp criticisms of power and the hypocrisy of the arbiters of taste and authority still hold up in any age. And its unconventional and self-conscious style seems more in tune with our own penchant for postmodernism than its own time. There are still too Jack Gurneys in the world for a film like The Ruling Class to go out of style any time soon.
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• Commentary Track with Peter Medak, Peter Barnes, and Peter O'Toole
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