You probably haven’t heard of The Ruling Class, a 1972 British film from director Peter Medak. I know I hadn’t. According to its Wikipedia page, the film was a passion project for star Peter O’Toole, and it bombed at both the American and British box offices. It had all but dropped off of the map until the Criterion Collection put it back on disc a couple of years ago. God bless the Criterion people: not every movie they canonize is great, but every movie they canonize deserves to be seen. This one is no different.
The movie opens with the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews), coming home to his estate after a rough day as a judge in the British courts. Turns out that the 13th Earl has a thing for auto-erotic asphyxiation, and this time he goes too far and hangs himself. The estate is passed on to his son Jack (O’Toole), who has a bit of a problem: he is, as the British would say, quite mad. Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic who is convinced that he is Jesus Christ, the God of love returned to the flesh. Jack’s distant relatives need him to have a son before they can have him committed and divvy up his wealth, so they try to convince him that actress Grace (Carolyn Seymour) is his imaginary lover.
It’s no wonder that this movie bombed, because that opening scene with the 13th Earl is a film-killer. It’s not particularly well-shot and it suffers from poor sound design; the latter is an especially big problem because Andrews mumbles his dialogue through an English accent so thick that I only caught one word out of ten. Once the rope comes out, you start to realize that this isn’t going to be a typical British-aristocracy movie, but then Andrews has another lengthy incomprehensible soliloquy before he hangs himself. If I were watching on Netflix Watch Instantly, I would have already clicked the Back button by now.
Once O’Toole arrives, the movie picks up a lot of steam. He delivers a performance for the ages: a dangerous, live-wire effort that propels the film through its numerous flaws. All actors want to play a crazy person, and many of them get a chance at it, but very few actually play people who have lost their grip on reality. The performance is full of jokey bits that you might expect – some other character mutters “My God!” and O’Toole answers “Yes?”, stuff like that – but it’s shot through with fear and despair whenever the real world runs up against his delusion.
I’m stepping lightly here because I don’t want to spoil too much, but Jack does not believe he is Jesus for the duration of the movie. The really amazing thing is that his fear and despair are still there after the change, but O’Toole plays a completely different reaction to them. Whereas Jack/Christ would have responded to his self-doubt with fear and retreat, the later Jack responds with loathing and rage, and the movie’s satire pivots effortlessly off of the changes in his performance. Every thematic aspect of this movie that I liked is derived from O’Toole’s performance. If at any point he goes wrong, there is no movie.
The problem is that the satire, and just about everything else in the movie not named Peter O’Toole, is all over the place. Some scenes show imagination with the staging and cinematography; others look like a lame TV episode. The movie is peppered with musical numbers to deliver the themes of certain scenes; sometimes it works, and sometimes it is horribly campy. This movie whipsaws between silly and serious so sharply that O’Toole has described it the dramatic scenes as “tragic relief.”
Of all of the things about this film that I found annoying, the worst was the way in which its satire would start out sly and clever, and then beat me into the ground with its obviousness. This is a movie which has a number of fascinating things to say, first about religion, then about the nature of the British upper class itself. I can see why writer Peter Barnes (adapting his own stage play) might think he has to explain himself a lot because he has so much to say, but in practice it leads to many painful scenes where we are shown a fascinating metaphor, and then a character feels the need to explain to another character what we just saw. The last fifteen minutes suffer acutely from this problem; Medak misses several chances to end his movie on a perfectly moody note, but instead he feels the need to over-explain again and again.
Seymour’s performance is a particular victim of the film’s random nature. You’d think she has a plum role: her character introduces new tensions with both O’Toole and the other characters, and she gets to sing and dance alongside O’Toole a few times. Her performance builds to a terrific scene in which she breaks the fourth wall and explains her character’s amorality to the audience via a sexy striptease. Then she all but disappears from the story, existing only to deliver a baby along with some of those awkwardly on-the-nose lines. It’s a real waste of an actress who has had a long and varied career since then, including everything from movies to TV to voice work in the video games Gears of War and Mass Effect.
O’Toole was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, and certainly deserved to win, but he ran up against an even more legendary actor playing an even more deserving role: Marlon Brando in The Godfather. In a way this was a passing of the baton. O’Toole’s performance is big and theatrical, very much of the old Hollywood; Brando was a Method actor through and through and an inspiration for every actor in the revolutionary movies of the later 1970s. If The Ruling Class had been made a decade earlier perhaps O’Toole would have won, but then again, a movie with comedy this dark and satire this severe probably couldn’t have been made a decade earlier.
Reviewed by Mark Young