Classic Film Review: O’Toole & Co. send up the foibles of “The Ruling Class” (1972)

It bowls the viewer over with ham-fisted, theatrical excess, a grandiose exclamation point on the tail end of the Golden Age of screen satire.

Peter Barnes sees to it that his class-eviscerating theatrical talk-a-thon “The Ruling Class” makes it to the screen with the dagger still bloody, although the blood’s somewhat dry on the blade.

On the stage three years before Monty Python’s hilarious and pointed “Upper Class Twit of the Year” contest, on the screen a year or so after that was telecast, director Peter Medak’s not wholly stagebound, ever-so-quotable film version feels stodgy and stale, half a century later.

It’s not the content, the idea of sending up the inbred Etonian/Oxbridge/House of Lords Brits whose “born to rule” privilege is still with us, even though Britain is once again questioning those Hanoverian “Windsors” and the ermine-caped and coddled DNA’s “divine right of kings.” Barnes’ play earned a Nicholas Hytner/James McAvoy revival just a few years back.

The “classic” film? It’s something of a stiff. Built around a madness, heavy makeup and Bloody Marys turn by Peter O’Toole, it finishes with a savage flourish. But the two hours-plus bore that precedes that remains, as they say in the UK, “a bit much.”

Lord Gurney (Harry Andrews), a widowed, titled nobleman and army veteran, dies during an accident that would have exposed the way he got his jollies, had that sort of thing ever become public. His autoerotic asphyxiation while in his dress uniform and cap — and a ballet tutu — goes awry. And just as he was planning to remarry and sire a fresh heir.

Why? The idea of his “mad” son inheriting the title, the seat in the House of Lords and the magnificent pile (Harlaxton Manor was the filming location) and estate is unthinkable to his brother Charles (William Mervyn), and Lord Gurney himself had to give some thought to protecting the family’s bloodline-based privilege.

But the lord gets-off in mysterious ways, and dies, with a big chunk of cash going to charity, a bigger one to his faithful manservant Tucker (Arthur Lowe), and everything else going to wayward Jack.

A man who has worn a monk’s habit, his hair and beard long and a beatific glow about his face for nearly ten years, who thinks he is Jesus “Mark II,” will become Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, 14th Earl of Gurney.

Just don’t call him (O’Toole) “Jack.”

With Uncle Charles, his wife Lady Claire (Coral Browne), their nob of a son (James Villiers) and the obliging local C of E bishop (the great Alastair Sim) present, let the debate about the new lord’s “fitness” for his inheritance begin. How does his know he’s truly the Father, Son and Holy Ghost?

“Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.

But but but…surely this cannot stand! Even having “Jack” explained to them by his “foreign” doctor (Michael Bryant) and others, can’t lessen the blow.

“Remember he’s suffering from delusions of grandeur. In reality he’s an earl, an English aristocrat, a member of the ruling class. Naturally, he’s come to believe there’s only one person grander than that: the Lord God Almighty Himself.”

This Jesus naps upon a cross and beams when he talks of love and blessings, the wonders of “His” world. He fails utterly to inspire his relatives to evolve into better people, or to give up their schemes to displace him, or at least marry him off so that another “heir” can be produced and he can be sent back to the “looney bin.”

“We think you should take a wife.”

“Who from?”

The manservant Tucker, more “outspoken” but still on the job after receiving his newly-won wealth, just shrugs at this latest upper class twit.

“Yes, he’s a nutcase. Most of these titled fleabags are. Rich nobs and privileged arseholes can afford to be bonkers. They’re living in a dreamworld, aren’t they, sir? Life’s made too easy for ’em. They don’t have to earn a livin’, so they do just what they want to.”

Director Peter Medak, a refugee from communist Hungary, may have had insights on this “Bolshie” satire of class and privilege. But he shows little flair for comedy or comic blocking. The film never breaks free from that “stagebound” feel. Every scene runs past its payoff with most of the first two acts playing as an endless succession of “let’s not get to the point/the good stuff just yet” prevarications.

There are occasional wacky breaks for a little song and dance, “The Varsity Rag,” public school songs and the like. They’re rather blandly translated to the screen.

The “He thinks he’s Jesus” joke is campy enough, but flogging it to death is a sin. What we stick around for is the fading hope that eventually this nutter will be “accepted” because “We understand each other perfectly. Breeding speaks to breeding.” Jack is just “a little eccentric, perhaps.”

And when he’s “accepted” we doubt he’ll have any trouble fitting in with his fellow “eccentrics” in the House of Lords.

With rank having its privileges, no effort will be spared to provide Jack with a “cure” via a fellow headcase who bills himself as “The High Voltage Messiah” (Nigel Green),.Charles’ mistress (Carolyn Seymour) will be persuaded to marry him.

Madness will be shrugged off, a murder will be covered-up thanks to great wealth’s ability to hide behind the Church and school connections and class. If that sounds dispiritingly “present day,” that’s kind of the point.

The film divided critics and awards groups in its day, but there’s no denying its impact. It was a flop. O’Toole would enter his own “years in the wilderness” that even the cult hit “The Stunt Man” couldn’t end. It would take “My Favorite Year” to truly begin his own third act.

Medak would never be entrusted with anything of this scale again. He’d go on to film “The Krays” and “Romeo is Bleeding” and a lot of American TV.

The movie they left behind, a production launched — mid-bender — when O’Toole secured the rights and could add it to his “Man from La Mancha” schedule, remains a curious and endlessly quotable artifact.

If the play’s as timeless as Hytner maintained it is, it’s a pity the director of “The Madness of King George” didn’t take a crack at making a film using his West End production as a jumping off point.

But perhaps he figured out what O’Toole, Medak and Barnes didn’t, way back when. This sort of talky, madcap-but-myopic satire only works on the stage, where the many pauses allow the many pithy punchlines to become laughlines and the live audience helps carry the load.

Rating: PG, innuendo, scatological humor

Cast: Peter O’Toole, Alastair Sim, Carolyn Seymour, Arthur Lowe, Coral Browne, William Mervyn, James Villiers, Michael Bryant and Harry Andrews.

Credits: Directed by Peter Medak, scripted by Peter Barnes, based on his play. An Avco Embassy release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.

Running time: 2:33


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.