Movies don’t get any better than Peter Medak’s film version (1972) of Peter Barnes’ play (1968) The Ruling Class. In fact, if I had to name the five best films ever made, this would be on that list. Unfortunately, while The Ruling Class held considerable cult status in the 1970s (I have seen 300-plus seat auditoriums sell out twice nightly for an entire weekend at university screenings), it has suffered a decline in subsequent years, thanks in no small part to a botched home video release. When brought out on VHS (remember that?), the film was cut from 154 to 141 minutes. Why? So it would fit on one tape. Unfortunately, that version became the source material for the film’s TV prints, a subsequent VHS reissue and the laser disc release. As a result, a great many people only know the film in this bastardized form.
Blessedly, the film was rescued from this insulting treatment a few years ago — using director Medak’s personal 35mm print — and is now back among us as it was originally intended. (This version is actually a bit longer than the original U.S. release print, which trimmed Carolyn Seymour’s stripping scene to get a PG rating, and dropped one other scene for no apparent reason.) This version is the goods — and a special screening of it is a treat for a couple reasons. First of all, it’s a comedy (among other things), and as such, it plays better with an audience. The other thing is size. Medak shot the film in a way that preserves the essential theatricality of the piece, using long takes and a fluid camera — an approach which works wonderfully in a theater or even a screening room setup, but one that suffers on a 15-inch television. In this case, size matters.
Unlike most films, The Ruling Class is impossible to pigeonhole by genre. Yes, it’s a comedy (albeit a frequently vicious one), and yes, it’s a musical. But it contains moments of true horror, and its theme is neither easy nor comfortable. It’s the story of Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O’Toole in one of the finest performances ever committed to film), a congenially deranged young man who happens to believe he’s Jesus Christ (a revelation that came to him in “East Acton just outside the public urinal”). He inherits the family title — much to the chagrin of his embarrassed family, who wants to have him put away — when his father (Harry Andrews) accidentally hangs himself (wearing a cocked hat and a ballet skirt). The catch to this is that he must be married (and he believes he’s already married to Marguerite Gautier, the heroine of Verdi’s La Traviata), and produce an heir, or the estate goes to charity.
Peter Barnes’ screenplay (adapted with very few changes from his play) is a marvel, filled with magnificent set pieces — “The Varsity Drag” musical number, Jack raising a table (instead of Lazarus, who’d be too decomposed), the operatic entrance of a bogus Marguerite Gautier (Carolyn Seymour), the horrific battle between Jack and the “High Voltage Messiah” (Nigel Green), the chilling penultimate scene in the House of Lords, etc. And to what end? It’s a work about people prizing conformity and the status quo over goodness and kindness. If it’s true that a people get the government they deserve, mightn’t it be equally true that a people get the God they deserve? I once drove 300 miles to see this movie (and I don’t regret it), all you have to do is go downtown.
â reviewed by Ken Hanke