The Ruling Class Review

When his father (Harry Andrews) dies in a bizarre accident, Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney (Peter O'Toole) becomes the fourteenth Earl of Gurney. There's one problem, though: Jack thinks he is Jesus Christ. The rest of the family plot to institutionalise him, or even cure him – but is the cure worse than the illness?

In the March 2009 issue of Sight & Sound there is a letter (from Christopher Fowler, short-story writer and novelist) decrying what he sees as a British cinematic tradition of naturalism and the celebration of ordinariness, which he sees as holding us back from greatness. He calls for more films that are written (as opposed to simply being transcribed, say), that use language to put forward erudite ideas and argument. Item, the 1972 film of The Ruling Class, based on the play of the same name by Peter Barnes. To call it “Peter Medak’s The Ruling Class”, ascribing it to the director auterist-fashion, is surely a misnomer. And despite that once-in-a-lifetime cast, it’s clearly a writer’s film.

At its heart, The Ruling Class is a relentless satire on the British aristocracy, describing it as an institution rife with madness and perversity, but that seems inadequate as a summing-up. When the film hits, it hits a bullseye; when it misses it falls flat on its face, and it’s insanely overlong at two and a half hours…but dull it isn’t. Just when it begins to drag, a witty line or a detail of performance, rivets the attention. At times you wonder where it can go next, as characters break into song and a foxhunt ends with the fox giving its opinion of its pursuers in no uncertain terms.

Although it’s not unattractively photographed (by Ken Hodges), this isn’t a great-looking film. Peter Medak, an uneven director at the best of times though with some good films in his CV, simply keeps out of the way for much of the time. And with that script, and that cast, it hardly matters. When you have Arthur Lowe, in what could be his best-ever performance outside Dad’s Army (as the Marxist butler Tucker) and Alastair Sim (as the deeply confused Bishop) in the same film, what else do you need? Well, a lead performance with enough guns to sink a battleship, and that’s what Peter O’Toole provides. It earned him a much-deserved Oscar nomination, the film’s only nod from the Academy. Strangely, Peter Barnes was not nominated for his screenplay, though he would receive one twenty years later for the very different Enchanted April.

There are films that are messy and sprawling, which overreach themselves and sometimes fall short, but somehow have more of an effect than something more low-key and achieved. The Ruling Class does all these things, and it’s no surprise that it’s had a cult following ever since its first release.


Optimum release The Ruling Class on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.

There is a US release from Criterion, and this DVD begins with the Criterion Collection logo, followed by the nostalgic sight (for those of us of a certain age) of a red BBFC X certificate. However, this does raise a question. The BBFC cut the film for its cinema release: what they removed, I do not know. As the Criterion transfer was supervised by Medak, I assume that the cut material was reinstated, but this is not confirmed as I do not have a copy of the Criterion to hand. (There have been shortened versions of this film in circulation in the past.)

If Optimum have licensed the Criterion transfer, they appear to have standards-converted it from NTSC to PAL: the lack of a speeded-up running time is one giveaway. Another is the unnecessarily soft transfer, and ghosting on movement that’s noticeable even on a 28-inch CRT television set. (The fox hunt sequence is a particular offender here.) Although colours and shadow detail seem fine, the standards conversion lets the show down. The aspect ratio is 1.78:1 (from a cinema ratio of either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1) and the transfer is anamorphically enhanced.

The soundtrack is mono, as the film was originally, and it’s just fine, with the all-important dialogue very clear. Optimum’s policy of not subtitling their English-language releases is particularly regrettable with such a dialogue-driven film as this. Also, the company standard of eight chapter stops is simply inadequate for a film as long as this.

There are no extras on this DVD.

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