After the Irish actor, Peter O’Toole, died, some of my Facebook friends said that his best film was The Ruling Class. This piqued my curiosity, so I decided to watch it. (You can find the whole movie on Youtube.)
The Ruling Class is a 1972 film directed by Peter Medak, with a script by Peter Barnes, adapted from his own stage play.
The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) accidentally kills himself while engaging in autoerotic asphyxiation. His will leaves his entire estate to his only surviving son, Jack (Peter O’Toole). The problem here is that Jack believes he is Jesus Christ. He spends his time making speeches about love and hanging on a cross. This scandalizes the Gurneys and their aristocratic neighbors. Jack’s uncle, Sir Charles (William Mervyn) plots to take the estate away from him. He reasons that if he can get Jack to produce a male heir, he can then have Jack declared insane while having the Gurney line continue unbroken. Sir Charles persuades his mistress, Grace, (Carolyn Seymour) to woo Jack. Jack falls in love with her. They get married, and Grace soon gives birth to a son. Sir Charles’s plan, however, is complicated by the psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), who is determined to cure Jack of his delusion. After several failed attempts, Herder hits upon the idea of confronting Jack with a mental patient who also believes he is God. This appears to work; Jack seems to be restored to his old self. Sir Charles is still determined to have him committed, however, and he arranges to have a court-appointed psychiatrist interview Jack. The meeting gets off to a rocky start, but when Jack begins spouting reactionary and xenophobic political rhetoric, the doctor declares him to be sane.
The Ruling Class should have ended at this point. Instead, it goes into a lengthy coda, in which Jack convinces himself that he is actually Jack the Ripper, and he starts killing people. The joke here is that the “sane” Jack is actually a pathological murderer. This struck me as unnecessary, since it doesn’t build on the film’s previous ideas. What’s more, it makes the movie long: two-and-a-half hours. The characters and the situation simply aren’t strong enough to sustain one’s interest for that period of time. Satire is best done with a light, but sharp, touch. This movie does have many funny moments, though, and it benefits from strong performances. O’Toole is powerful and convincing as Jack.
It no doubt tells us something about O’Toole’s political views that he lobbied United Artists to make Barnes’s play into a film. He even went so far as to agree to do the part of Jack for no pay. The aristocratic Gurneys are portrayed as moral hypocrites. The movie strongly implies that Britain’s upper classes secretly yearn for fascism. Whatever his faults may have been, O’Toole was on the right side of history.