The Ruling Class (Criterion Collection) Review

The Film

When a film is described as 'cult', the actual meaning of the word has been so distorted as to make it meaningless. These days, something as comparatively mainstream as Blade Runner or even Silence of the Lambs can be described as 'cult', ignoring the vast audience that TV, video and DVD have built up for a film. Therefore, a real cult film is one that will almost certainly never appeal to more than a tiny minority of people, and The Ruling Class gloriously fulfils this criterion (sic). It's not a film that's entirely- or even mostly- successful, nor is it even vaguely conventional 'classic' material. What it most certainly is is one of the most bizarre British films ever made.

The plot, loosely, concerns Jack (O'Toole), the 14th earl of Gurney, an insane aristocrat who believes he is Jesus, and his assumption of the family title after his father (Andrews) dies in a bizarre sadomasochistic ritual while wearing a tutu. Unfortunately, Jack's family are unamused by his title, and plot to have him conceive an heir, so that they can institutionalise him. Meanwhile, there are song and dance numbers, Alistair Sim as a confused bishop, and Arthur Lowe delivering probably his finest non-Mainwaring performance as the Marxist butler. And it gets stranger.

A typical scene, late in the film, is probably a good test for whether you will enjoy the film. Jack has become relatively sane, but his family is still attempting to have him locked away, so a Master of Lunatics is sent for to examine him. After a frosty start to their meeting, the men are reconciled as they realise they are both Old Etonians, leading to a vigorous rendition of the Eton Boating Song and a promise from Jack that he will attend the next school reunion, 'after my eight years in the lunatic asylum'. If this strikes you as asinine, pointless or incomprehensible, don't bother watching this film. If it strikes you as the funniest thing ever, then you are in need of social conditioning. If, on the other hand, it strikes you as weirdly provocative, interesting and original, then this might well be of interest.

Medak, who has become a Hollywood hack with films like Species 2 to his name, cannot be said to be the world's best director; his idea of being cinematic tends normally to consist of experimenting with a zoom lens, and his framing of scenes frequently leaves something to be desired. However, he does at least impose some semblance of order on Peter Barnes' chaotic script (based on his moderately successful stage play), managing to make the song and dance numbers seem vaguely integrated into the narrative, and eventually opening up the script with scenes set in the House of Lords and Victorian London, of all places. Barnes' script, meanwhile, is a chaotic mix of brilliance, pointlessness, and utter weirdness, in roughly equal measures. There are some wonderfully witty lines scattered throughout, but unfortunately they are scattered, rather than unified into a coherent whole.

An obvious comparison piece is Luis Bunel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which is a more obviously surreal piece, but shares a similarly jaundiced view of the upper classes, albeit the French rather than the English. However, while Bunel's film doesn't have one central character, The Ruling Class does, and O'Toole's magnificent performance elevates the film from bizarre curiosity to minor masterpiece. He is stuck with a virtually impossible character, who has to combine aspects of Jesus, Jack the Ripper, an English aristrocrat and others, and pulls it off magnificently, even if he never actually seems like a human being. Arthur Lowe and Alistair Sim are both magnificent as Tucker the butler and the bishop, and the rest of the cast are all strong, if occasionally slightly hammy.

Strictly speaking, I can't give this a rating out of ten; it's heavily flawed, even on its own terms, but there are wonderful, brilliant moments scattered throughout, and it is also, as O'Toole wryly notes on the commentary track, a welcome relief from the endless parade of kitchen sink dramas that the British film industry was peddling at the time. I would hesitate before recommending this film to strangers- personally, I wouldn't say it's as good as its most fervent supporters seem to believe, but neither would Barnes- which might seem like cowardice, but also means that I won't get irate e-mails saying 'I bought this film on your recommendation, and I hated it'. Most people probably will hate this film, and it's easy to see why. But, for those who want to watch something a bit different, it can be cautiously recommended, albeit perhaps not at the $40 Criterion are asking for it.

The Picture

Criterion have done a limited restoration job here on the picture, which pleases and frustrates in equal measure. On the plus side, there are points where the picture is almost flawless, and the colours are generally bright and clear, strikingly so at points. However, there is also an irritating amount of print damage throughout, and, compared to the much-maligned Godfather transfers, the film really does show its age. Not at all bad, of course, but it's hard to accept that this couldn't have been a bit better.

The Sound

A mono track is provided, which presents the dialogue and songs reasonably well, if rather quietly at points. Still, thank God (or Jack) that Criterion didn't attempt to do a 5.1 remix, which would have been utterly pointless for a film that is hardly a sonic extravaganza.

The Extras

As usual with Criterion discs, the commentary track is the best extra, and this one is quite magnificent. Acting as both a companion to the film, and a criticism of it, Medak, an articulate and witty O'Toole and Barnes discuss the film in both historical and social terms, looking at the film's legacy, and making some very critical points about it at times; however, this isn't the bitching of some talentless hack, but a genuine consideration of the film's merits and (substantial) flaws. An absolutely brilliant track, this is one of the best commentaries I have yet heard.

The other extras are more disappointing. Medak's home movies are around 30 minutes of completely silent behind-the-scenes footage; while there is some interesting stuff in them, it's very hard going to watch all of them. If you do feel under some sort of obligation to do so, put on a CD of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, which complements the film surprisingly well. There is also a fairly extensive gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs, albeit too often without captioning. An utterly bizarre theatrical trailer, and a slightly gushing Ian Christie essay, round off the not-bad but faintly insubstantial extras.


A flawed but fascinating film is released on a middling disc from Criterion, with an excellent commentary the pick of the extras. It's definitely not a film that everyone will enjoy, but it's certainly worth a look for those interested in leftfield British filmmaking.

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