The Ruling Class [DVD]
Screenplay : Peter Barnes (based on his play)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1972
Stars : Peter O'Toole (Jack Gurney), Alastair Sim (Bishop Lampton), Arthur Lowe (Tucker), William Mervyn (Sir Charles Gurney), Coral Browne (Lady Claire), Michael Bryant (Dr. Herder), Carolyn Seymour (Grace Shelley), Harry Andrews (13th Earl of Gurney),
The historical rigidity and socially sanctioned elitism of the British class system has been a target of constant parody for centuries, from Jonathan Swift, to Oscar Wilde, to George Bernard Shaw, to Monty Python. With the onset of radical politics and social reform in the 1960s, overt satire of the British aristocracy died down as the view became more prominent that class inequalities were being at least recognized and dealt with, if not smoothed over. Of course, if history has taught us anything, it's the perpetuation of class distinctions in complex societies, something Peter Barnes recognized and refused to ignore when he wrote his darkly comic and contemptuous play The Ruling Class in the mid-1960s.
When the play was made into a film in 1972, director Peter Medak, a Hungarian émigré, decided to maintain much of the work's original theatricality. The adaptation of theater to cinema has always had a tension between the desire to both maintain a work's original theatrical roots and also expand it to fill the larger canvas offered by the medium of film, and Medak managed to do both. He makes The Ruling Class both stifling in its stagy-ness and odd use of direct address to the audience and gloriously bizarre in its adoption of cinematic visual conventions such as freeze-framing, as well as the free blending of well-known cinematic genres, including the family melodrama, the musical, and the horror film. In this manner, with its irreverent use of pastiche to achieve irony and parody, The Ruling Class is decidedly postmodern several years before it became a buzzword.
The story involves the accidental death of a British lord, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews), in a decidedly un-noble manner: He hangs himself while in military uniform and a tutu during a bizarre sexual ritual. The Gurney family is thrown into chaos when the Earl's son, Jack Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O'Toole), is named in the will as heir to the family estate. As the literal and symbolic figurehead of the Gurney family, with its noble ties and long-standing position in the highest echelons of the British aristocracy, Jack has much riding on him. Unfortunately for the rest of the Gurneys, Jack is a paranoid schizophrenic who believes himself to be Jesus Christ. When a doctor informs Jack's flustered uncle, Sir Charles (William Mervyn), of this fact, Charles replies, "But he's a Gurney," as if the very name renders Jack invulnerable to such embarrassments as mental illness.
Much of the story details the rest of the family's attempts to maintain their aristocratic pride, which eventually involves a convoluted plot to have Jack committed to an insane asylum. This can't be done until Jack produces a male heir--someone to succeed him as Earl of Gurney--so the family concocts a way for him to marry a woman named Grace Shelley (Carolyn Seymour) for the sole purpose of producing a child. Unfortunately, not only does Grace end up falling in love with Jack, but Jack's doctor, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), a wily German psychoanalyst, manages to "cure" him by forcing him to face another mental patient who also believes himself to be God--in this case, an "electric messiah."
This is not the end of the family's troubles, though, as Jack secretly begins to believe himself to be Jack the Ripper, which leads him to murder a family member during one of his delusions. This then leads to a cover-up and false accusations, all while Jack is preparing to return to his rightful place in the British House of Lords. The irony is, of course, that while Jack may physically look more "noble" at this point, he would have better served the people when he was spouting edicts of love and compassion as Christ, rather than admonishing the return of capital punishment and flogging as a proper English lord (who is secretly a murderer).
As a satire, The Ruling Class is nothing if not obvious. Peter Barnes screenplay, based on his play, identifies its targets early on and goes right after them. This results in some truly hilarious and bizarre moments, many of which involve Tucker (Arthur Lowe), the Gurney's long-time butler who turns into a kind of audience surrogate for indulging in irreverent behavior toward the aristocracy. Director Peter Medak allows Barnes' ideas to run rampant visually, especially in the final sequence that finds Jack addressing the British House of Lords, which is envisioned as a cobweb-laced crypt in which the lords have transformed into eerie gray zombies and skeletons.
Of course, it is impossible to discuss The Ruling Class without mentioning the performance of Peter O'Toole. This is the kind of role that great actors relish, offering as it does an almost absurd range of emotions and behaviors. When he first appears on-screen, he looks like one of the worst parodies of those awful, pious Westernized paintings of Christ that imagine Him as effeminate, gaunt, and blonde. With his angular face, V-shaped beard, and ridiculous goldilocks, O'Toole commands the screen in his delusional state, making completely believable a role that is almost inconceivable. When he changes halfway through the movie and becomes the ruthless portrait of aristocratic power that the Gurneys always wanted him to be, he is even more convincing, and it's hard to imagine that it was the same character who played the deluded Christ.
The Ruling Class is certainly unique, and its narrative tendency to suddenly break out into silly song-and-dance sequences (including a burlesque striptease) at the most unexpected moments will take first-time viewers by surprise. If you connect with the film narratively and get in-synch with its off-kilter sense of humor, these moments will seem almost natural, even in their excess. The film as a whole tends to run too long, however, and it would have benefited greatly from some judicious editing in the middle sections. Even at its overly lengthy running time, the film is a tremendously enjoyable black comedy, a risky marriage of the theatrical and the cinematic that remains relevant today as it pokes fun at the class divisions and social hypocrisies that still exist and show no sign of breaking down any time soon.
|The Ruling Class: Criterion Collection Director-Approved Special Edition DVD|
|This DVD contains the complete 154-minute director's cut of The Ruling Class never before available in the United States.|
|Audio||Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by director Peter Medak, writer Peter Barnes, and star Peter O'Toole|
Peter Medak's home movies shot during production
Rare publicity and behind-the-scenes stills
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection / Home Vision|
|Release Date||October 30, 2001|
|The Ruling Class is presented in a new anamorphic transfer that was created from the original 35mm interpositive. The image is matted to a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, although I am not sure whether it was projected theatrically in that aspect ratio, or whether it used the more common 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 ratios. In any case, the image is very good, even when it shows signs of its age. Colors are strong and well-saturated, although the overall look of the film is somewhat dark. The image is sharp while still retaining a nuanced film-like appearance, and detail can be quite impressive in the visually loaded interiors of the Gurney manor. Flesh tones appear natural and black levels are generally good with little evidence of grain. A few specks and scratches here and there, but nothing excessive or distracting.|
|The soundtrack, which was transferred from the original 35mm optical tracks, is presented in Dolby Digital in its original one-channel monaural mix, which sounds clean and clear throughout, with only limited background hiss.|
| Recorded separately and then edited together, director Peter Medak, writer Peter Barnes, and actor Peter O'Toole provide an interesting, if somewhat staid, screen-specific audio commentary. There is not much in the way of screen-specific commentary, however, as much of the time is devoted to various anecdotes and background stories about the film's production and its various ideas. There is quite a bit of fascinating information to be found here, and the track is certainly worth listening to in its entirety. |
Criterion worked with Medak closely on this new DVD and was allowed to include some supplements taken from his personal holdings, including more than 40 minutes of 16mm home-movie footage that was shot during the film's production. Although silent, this rough-shot footage is a real treat to watch, affording as it does an unadulterated look at the world behind the camera, unmediated by a studio publicity department. The footage includes both shots of The Ruling Class being filmed, as well as moments in which the cast and crew are relaxing and passing the time between shots.
Medak also provided dozens and dozens of behind-the-scene stills and production shots (mostly black and white with a few in color) from his own collection, which are presented in an extensive stills gallery. Also included is the film's original theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Copyright © 2001 James Kendrick