The British are particularly fixated on their class system – and equally obsessed with satirizing it. Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class, made 50 years ago in a time of social discontent not unlike our own, is a freewheeling but trenchant look at aristocratic privilege, and the cruelty its members will accept in order to maintain it.
Peter O’Toole plays Jack, a schizophrenic aristocrat. When his father dies in what seems an act of autoerotic asphyxiation (it’s not entirely clear what kind of jollies he’s getting from swinging around with a military uniform on top and a tutu on the bottom), Jack becomes the Earl of Gurney. There’s one problem: Jack is convinced he’s Jesus Christ. As Jack rambles around the family estate doing Jesus-y thing – talking to the flowers, preaching universal love, occasionally draping himself across a large wooden crucifix – his family plots against him. With the help of a morally flexible psychiatrist, they perform a series of cruel experiments in order to “cure” him. In one, Jack debates another patient who believes he is the cruel, punishing God of the Old Testament. This other patient browbeats Jack until he accepts that the world is not fundamentally good, but full of evil. After this, the earl seems to recognize himself as “Jack,” but we soon discover that he now believes he is Jack the Ripper. Despite his murderous impulses, this persona is much more “normal” than the Jesus delusion and he is accepted by high society.
The Ruling Class is adapted from a play of the same name by Peter Barnes, and it’s the kind of black farce that rarely makes it to the screen. It’s wordy and formally experimental, full of impromptu musical numbers and obscure literary and cultural references. While we associate both British cinema and theater of the ‘60s and ‘70s with “kitchen sink” realism, at the same time absurdist black comedy was flourishing. It moved between the two media. Lindsay Anderson made If…, another great swipe at upper-class institutions, and then went on to direct Joe Orton’s farce What the Butler Saw at the Royal Court Theatre. Medak himself had previously adapted another darkly comedic play, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. This cross-pollination helps explain The Ruling Class’s unique character, and its efficacy as satire.
Stage-to-screen adaptations tend to bend toward filmic realism. But Medak defies conventional wisdom and heightens the artificiality of the material. Many long monologues remain. Shots are framed in carefully composed tableaux; there’s a lot of direct address to the camera. Medak also uses cinematic tools to heighten the artificiality: there are high overhead views, long tracking shots, and emphatic zooms. The genuinely startling effect of these techniques has a Brechtian function. It shakes up the British tendency toward understatement, and makes us see characters as representatives of social types in a system where everyone’s on the make – and all too eager to exploit Jack’s condition in order to maintain the status quo.
As Jack, O’Toole manages to bring out both the satire and the pathos of Jack’s condition. In his first iteration as “J.C.”, he plays Jack’s Christian evangelism as almost fey, with an eerily benign mien interrupted by moments of cheeky smugness. But there’s a genuinely sick and frightened person beneath, and there are moving moments when you see the wild eyes of a trapped animal. Jack has some of the messianic certainty of O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia, a characteristic which turns tight-lipped and steely once he identifies as a serial killer.
The cast also boasts a treasure trove of supporting actors. Coral Browne, as Jack’s aunt, is a brilliant ice-cold, tart-tongued aristocratic matron; she sees everything and never fails to comment on it. Famous British comedian Alistair Sim plays an absent-minded bishop, perhaps the only truly decent character in the story, but totally ineffectual in his plasticine befuddlement. Arthur Lowe is wonderful as Tucker, the family’s drunken, Communist butler. Tucker gets 30,000 pounds in the late earl’s will, but he stays in his job, partially to annoy the family and partly because he can’t quite shake the habits of servitude. Graham Crowden, a frequent Anderson collaborator, is all chummy joviality as the “master of lunacy” tasked with determining Jack’s sanity. (He does this quickly once he finds out they both went to the same elite boarding school.) They’re all total pros at embodying the stock characters of the British class system, with just enough specificity to burnish the dark comedy.
One could question if the film’s sharp skewering of its particular time and place translates to a contemporary audience. (Though if you look at today’s Britain, still obsessed with its own decline and governed by a chortling posh moron who’s breezily indifferent to the death of its citizens, you don’t have to squint to make a case for its relevance.) Yet even if it lacks some of the lasting revolutionary glee of Anderson’s If…, its experimental novelty and the quality of the performances make it well worth watching.
“The Ruling Class’ is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel and HBO Max.