For the Anglophiles among us, there’s nothing so ideal, so picturesque as the English country manor. It speaks of privilege and tradition; it suits tales of the gothic or the romantic, if there’s a difference; it’s the symbol of a world gone by that still clings defiantly to the current one. Such is the setting of The Ruling Class, a British comedy that somehow seems to have been mostly forgotten, limping along with the always questionable title of a cult film. And that’s a great pity, because few comedies have ever been as ridiculous yet realistic in premise, hilarious while still being deeply bitter and so black that even light itself cannot escape. Okay, that part is an exaggeration, but The Ruling Class is one of the truly great comedies on class and privilege, treating everyone involved with a wit so acid that it could melt the decks of the Nostromo.
Directed by Peter Medak and adapted by Peter Barnes from his own stage play, The Ruling Class is the story of one Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, or, as he prefers to be called, God. You see, Jack (played by the astounding Peter O’Toole) is a paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur, and when you’re a member of the landed English gentry with delusions of grandeur, there’s only one step up left: being God Himself. After his father, the stiffly upper-lipped 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews), dies in a bizarre autoerotic asphyxiation accident, his scheming brother Charles (William Mervyn) tries to take control of the estate, laconically aided by his dryly venomous wife, Claire (Coral Browne), and a doddering bishop (Alastair Sim). Unfortunately, it turns out the heir to the manor may be barmy as all get out, but he’s still legally entitled to everything the family’s got.
For the first half of the film, The Ruling Class is a fairly light-hearted romp, with an airy O’Toole pronouncing bizarre lines like “dignity has nothing to do with divinity” while riding a tricycle, taking naps on a special cross he’s had installed in the manor and generally taking the piss out of the elite of British society, embodied by his family. There’s far too many bon mots and quick jabs to list them all, but there are especially choice moments. A butler (Arthur Lowe) who has been given a fortune as a bequest sticks around just to do his job in the rudest manner possible, including insulting his employers openly and drunkenly singing pro-Socialist songs all night. Jack explains why he realized he is God with the following line: “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.” Oh, and did I mention that periodically the whole ensemble breaks out into song and dance numbers? Including a rendition of the old spiritual “Dem Bones” as support for a return to breaking on the wheel as capital punishment?
The Ruling Class takes a sharp turn into darkness when the family finally tries to cure his lordship as a preventative to Charles’ plot to marry Jack off to his uncle’s own mistress and produce an heir, allowing God to be institutionalized once and for all. When said mistress (Carolyn Seymour) genuinely falls in love with the gentle, aristocratic messiah, his therapist (Michael Bryant) finally resorts to extreme measures and confronts Jack with another patient who believes he is God. Only there’s a twist: while Jack believes he is the God of love, compensating for a lack of affection and severe mental dysfunction, McKyle (Nigel Green) is the God of electricity, darkness and vengeance. From there, it’s too much of a spoiler to reveal exactly what happens, but suffice it to say, Jack becomes the perfect English gentleman, privileged and respected in Parliament. Or as he puts it in one scene, “I recall as a sign of normalcy in our circle to slaughter anything that moves.”
What sets The Ruling Class apart from the bevy of comedies that find it sufficient to skewer the foolishness of the aristocracy is that it is a genuinely disturbing movie under its conceit. While we may laugh at Charles’ pompousness, there’s a clear undercurrent of the cruelty of power and privilege in his callous behavior. We can chuckle at the drunken butler, but his behavior is prompted by decades of abuse and ill use, which culminates in a horrible fate for a relatively innocent man. In fact, the closing montage of the film shows the final fate of all the characters we’ve grown fond of despite their foibles, and none of it is pretty, not even for Jack. The film makes it clear that his delusions are just that, delusions; his illness is unambiguous and not a sly allegory, like the ending of the like-minded Being There. Jack is a man who suffers deeply and causes others to suffer, no matter how much we laugh at the film. More than that, he may think he’s God, but he’s no saint. His belief in his divinity is rooted in the same sense of mindless privilege and superiority that taints the rest of his brutal family.
And none of this would be possible without O’Toole’s brilliant turn as Jack. While the actor has been blessed with aristocratic cheekbones and a timeless sense of dignity, even while chasing matrons in an ungainly leap, it’s his ability to convey Jack’s ebullience, bursts of fury and underlying torment that make the film. With a waxy pallor that makes him look less a human than a medieval representation of Christ (no doubt aided by his legendary drinking habit of the time), O’Toole is at his finest here, able to rattle off cheerful gibberish or to stalk in Victorian cloaks across a dim Somerset field with equal ease. It’s a nearly forgotten showcase for a great actor, and a great film in its own right. While some films are content to mock flaws in the system, The Ruling Class boldly points out the inhuman ridiculousness and violence of the whole idea.