Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Ruling Class: A Unique Film With a Brutal Message


          Based upon the play by Peter Barnes, this is a dark comedy, with jarring musical interludes, that centers around the protagonist of Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney who believes he is the God. The star, Peter O’Toole described it as a “comedy with tragic relief.” The film asks fundamental questions about privilege, humanity, and man's natural gravitation to the baser emotions. As Napoleon stated, "Men are more easily governed through their vices than their virtues."
          It is a savage look at the British class system and especially those at the top, or the “privileged assholes and crazy twats” as the leftist butler, played by Arthur Lowe, calls them. At several poignant moments throughout the film, the cast will suddenly break from straight-faced dialogue into a full-blown, song and dance numbers. In one case, a variation of `Connect 'dem Bones’ (called “Disconnect ‘dem Bones’) is ushered up to punctuate a scene with O'Toole lecturing the local gentry about the need for capital punishment.
Peter O'Toole in The Ruling Class
          After his father accidently hangs himself during a session of autoerotic asphyxiation, Jack returns from a mental institution to take up his role as the Earl and assuming his place in the House of Lords. He proclaims himself to everyone that he is the God of Love and sleeps hanging on a crucifix. His scheming family works hard to alternatively cure him and subvert him.  They hire a doctor to make him sane, but then trick him into marrying a local actress (and mistress of his Uncle) in order to produce an heir in case Jack’s condition cannot be reversed. As the child’s birth becomes imminent the doctor brings in another inmate from his asylum who also believes he is God- the AC/DC God, the Electric Christ. After a truly bizarre squaring off between the two, Jack seems to be cured, but it is revealed that his madness has simply shifted perspective and he takes his revenge on them all.
          The film was only made due to O’Toole’s obsession with it. Upon first seeing the play performed he went out and bought the film rights. According to director Peter Mendek, he had approached O’Toole several times about producing the film, without luck.  Eventually the project got started one night after he and O'Toole were returning from the theatre, which "meant stopping at every pub between Soho and Hampstead, and it didn't matter if it was after closing hour because he would knock on the door and just say 'Peter's here,' and every door opened for him”. Later on, at O'Toole's apartment, the drunk actor phoned his manager and said, "I'm with the crazy Hungarian and I know I'm drunk but I give you 24 hours to set this movie up." The next day, Medak received a call from United Artists and a deal was put together to shoot The Ruling Class. 
          This was such a passion project for O’Toole that he agreed to work for free. He was later compensated by having a large salary for appearing in the same studio’s musical Man of La Mancha, an adaptation of Don Quixote. Also Alistar Sims (famous for his portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge in the 1951 version of A Christmas Carol) cast himself in the film. He rang up O’Toole out of the blue and told him, “Of course I’ll help you by taking the part”. It might seem presumptuous but Sims had the acting chops to play the part, so O’Toole agreed and cast him as the doddering old Bishop in the family,
          This is a unique film filled with great characters performed by some of the best actors in British cinema at the time, Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor by the Oscars. Viciously funny with a twisted ending, no one walks away with a neutral opinion. It is a love it or hate it production.
              The full film is presented below. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor.