189. THE RULING CLASS (1972)

The Ruling Class is a rather… unusual film.”–original trailer to The Ruling Class


DIRECTED BY: Peter Medak 

FEATURING: , William Mervyn, Carolyn Seymour, , Coral Brown, Alistair Sim, James Villiers

PLOT: The 13th Earl of Gurney dies, leaving Jack, a madman who believes he is God, as his direct heir to inherit his seat in the House of Lords. His relatives scheme to trick Jack into marriage so that he will produce an heir to carry the Gurney line, and then seek to have him declared incompetent and have him committed. Unexpectedly, however, his psychiatrist’s drastic treatment cures Jack, and now that he no longer believes himself to be God, his disposition is not nearly as gentle.

Still from The Ruling Class (1972)

  • Peter Barnes adapted the script from his own play. (The play is till occasionally performed; at the time of this writing, was starring in a performance at Trafalgar Studios). Peter O’Toole bought the rights from Barnes, and director Medak convinced O’Toole to exercise his option after a night of hard drinking (naturally).
  • O’Toole was nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, losing to Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
  • The original U.S.theatrical release omitted Carolyn Seymour’s striptease scene so that the film could be released with a PG rating.
  • The Ruling Class‘ VHS release was cut by 13 minutes so that it would fit on a single tape. Some TV broadcasts used the same shortened version.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Some would say it’s Peter O’Toole as J.C. taking a flying leap off his cross on his wedding day, an image the director liked so much he highlighted it in a freeze frame. We prefer the penultimate hallucination, where the House of Lords is seen as a gallery of cheering corpses and clapping skeletons draped in cobwebs.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Peter O’Toole’s literally insane performance (“bless the pygmy hippos!”), accompanied by frequent hallucinations and left-field musical numbers, turn this literate upper-crust satire from a pointed class parable into something eccentric enough to deserve the designation “weird.”

Original trailer for The Ruling Class

COMMENTS: Although only making it onto film in 1972, the kitchen-sink satire of The Ruling Class is clearly a spiritual product of the freewheeling 1960s (Peter Barnes’ play debuted in 1968). A Jesus Christ who skips, sings and talks to the flowers, a butler with a copy of a Mao manifesto in his drawer, a guy in a gorilla suit… despite the posh accents, impeccable etiquette and manicured lawns, this is a comedy of manners filtered through a counterculture lens. The upper classes complain about progressive reforms plaguing the country, and fret that the riff-raff suffer from an “increase in immorality” due to the abolition of flogging and hanging. The democratic masses are on the rise, and despite the power Jack and the Gurneys still wield, there is the sense that they are living not so much in a mansion but in a museum; or, as the final scene might suggest, in a mausoleum.

Peter Barnes’ script is obvious in its targets, but subtlety in satire is overrated. The Ruling Class substitutes cleverness for subtlety, and passion for taste. Though not a riotous comedy, the film is full of memorable lines and witty jokes (mostly from the first half, before the film turns much darker) that come out of the tradition of Oscar Wilde or Geroge Bernard Shaw. When asked how he knows he is God, Jack answers, “when I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.” When the messianic J.C. terrifies a pair of dowagers by commanding them to love each other, one protests, “but your Lordship, I’m a married woman!” At one point Jack escapes involuntary commitment when he bursts into the “old Eton boating song” from the alma mater he and his psychological examiner share. Drunken butler Tucker (Arthur Lowe), who gets most of the funny lines that don’t go to O’Toole, has a truly memorable reaction to finding a dead body in the family estate that will surely make servants everywhere cheer.

The script drips with great lines, but there are plenty of absurd, surreal excursions to keep you on your toes, as well. The first time a character spontaneously breaks into a song and dance routine, it’s quite a surprise. The funny thing is that the musical numbers are infrequent enough that you keep forgetting about them, and you’re still astonished the next time one happens. You’ll never forget J.C. and his wife-to-be dressed in virgin white, strolling through the garden singing “My Blue Heaven,” or the reformed Jack suddenly breaking into “Dem Bones” while keeping rhythm with his black riding crop against his leather boot. Several minor episodes of hallucination are scattered throughout the film, but undoubtedly the most bizarre moment comes when Jack faces off against a fellow schizophrenic, a man who also believes himself to be the Almighty and who dubs himself “the High-Voltage Messiah” (or, alternately, “the Electric Christ”). He professes a theology that’s even more deranged than J.C.’s—“I’ve not traveled 20 million miles through galactic space to bandy words with a boxy moon-looney who thinks he’s me!”—and has the power to shoot blue sparks from his fingers (at least, to J.C.’s mad eyes he does). This confrontation provokes an existential crisis in Jack, as symbolized by a gorilla in a tophat who comes through an open window and bodyslams the would-be messiah over his knee. Yes, this can be a weird movie.

There is no way to discuss The Ruling Class without praising Peter O’Toole’s appropriately schizophrenic performance. As J.C., the unreformed madman with flowing blond locks who considers himself the God of Love, he is a hilariously likable holy fool. J.C.  may occasionally flap his arms and tweet like a bird, ride a tricycle to his honeymoon, or sleep standing upright on a cross, but there is also wisdom in his madness. Although clearly insane, his oratories are delivered with absolute conviction and authority. “Pride and riches, pomp and property, all must be lopped off. Love makes all men equal.” This sort of Jesus freak, “Bolshi” wisdom obviously does not go down well with his extended family, who cling to their privilege and standing. A cure for this madness is necessary; and after one is found, O’Toole’s performance turns as chilling as his former persona was charming, culminating in his dramatic rant before the House of Lords: “There’s no love without fear! By His hand, sword, pike and grappling hook, God, the crowbar of the world, flays, stabs, bludgeons, mutilates…”

The Ruling Class thus presents us with an inverted Bible, one that moves from New Testament forgiveness to Old Testament retribution. Jack’s pronouncements as J.C. are seen as madness; after his supposed cure, he is equally mad, but now has the cunning to disguise it. Unbridled sadism, it turns out, is socially acceptable to Jack’s peers; the delusions that you are One with a loving universe is not. “The strong must manipulate the weak,” Jack proclaims to a rapt gallery of Lords. “That’s the first law of the universe.” He rallies the troops like Henry V, inspiring them to break into a chorus of “Onward Christian Soldiers.” Meanwhile, we see the assembly as a congregation of withered corpses in red robes. Why? Is Jack addressing the dead spirits of past nobles as he loses himself in his harangue? Or is the suggestion that the earls and barons he addresses are, in reality, already the living dead, relics of a feudal past that has no place in the modern democratic world, and is soon to crumble to dust? I think it is the latter. I believe The Ruling Class is a blasphemous eulogy for the English class system, a shovelful of disrespectful dirt thrown on its grave. At the same time, it’s a warning that the ghosts of that ancient order still roam the countryside. Some of them even hold seats in Parliament.


“…a peculiar movie… It indulges in scenes of fantasy and hallucination, often a sign of desperation in a comedy.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (1983 re-release)

“Deftly blending broad humor, low comedy, social commentary, surrealism, suspense, and even musical numbers, The Ruling Class‘ attack on bourgeois propriety recalls similarly ambitious satires of the period, such as If…, Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls, Catch-22, and Harold And Maude.”–Nathin Rabin, The A.V. Club (DVD)

“Uneven, chaotic, surreal and noteworthy.”–Video Hound’s Movie Retriever (DVD)

IMDB LINK: The Ruling Class (1972)


The Ruling Class (1972) – The Criterion Collection – The Criterion Collection page offers the trailer and an essay by Ian Christie

The Ruling Class (1972) – Overview – TCM.com – Turner Classic Movies page includes the usual synopsis and cast info, plus a clip and short background piece by Paul Tatara

Peter O’Toole Rises from the Ashes – 1983 New York Times interview with O’Toole to promote the re-release of The Ruling Class

The Ruling Class (1972) – Alfred Eaker’s original review of The Ruling Class for this site

DVD INFO: In 2001 the Criterion Collection restored The Ruling Class (buy) to its original length, as well as cleaning up the print and audio. Extras include the trailer, rare photographs, director Peter Medak’s home movies from the set, and commentary track with O’Toole, Medak, and writer Peter Barnes.

Sadly, The Ruling Class is not currently available on Blu-ray or through video-on-demand.

13 thoughts on “189. THE RULING CLASS (1972)”

  1. A great favorite. I saw this the first time around 1980 in Cincinnati at a downtown repertory cinema called Movieola. Medak’s direction is competent though not inspired, but the fortunate thing is he isn’t moved to stray too far from the source material.

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  8. I LOVE this movie. I often use it in my psychology classes to show how the general public responds differently to individuals who suffer with mental illness but are nice, vs those who appear normal because they are violent and over the top.

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