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Guilty Pleasures: The Ruling Class – with Peter O’Toole

Speaking of movies that are guilty pleasures — ones that you really like, but wouldn’t put on your “best” or “must see” lists, or even perhaps admit to liking — I watched one of mine a couple weeks back with a friend…

In The Ruling Class (1972), Peter O’Toole plays Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl Of Gurney, a paranoid schizophrenic who takes over the title and estate after his father, the previous Earl, dies. Jack had been living in an insane asylum and when he takes over still believes himself to be JC, Eric, Burt, Coda, the First Immovable Mover – God, specifically the God of Love.

His family is outraged by his manner and appearance, but puts up with him to try to gain control over the estate. As part of their efforts, they marry him off in the hopes that he will produce an heir for whom the family can act as trustees, and also have his psychiatrist continue to treat him. But the treatments lead to an unexpected change in Jack’s delusions…

The Ruling Class was one of a set of British films from this period that I saw in fairly rapid succession at the UC Theater – including in particular Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) and Nicholas Roeg’s 1970 film with Mick Jagger and  Performance (about which I’ve written before). They are all films with a social critical edge, and all have moments with an almost magical realist quality, where their essentially realistic portrayal gives way to something dreamlike, an eruption of fantasy into the film.

While The Ruling Class is not really quite up to the standard of those other two films, it seemed like an exciting bit of social critique to a teenage film buff and would-be rebel, both for the overt social commentary and for the sense of seeing something in film that was, to me at the time, a bit new and different — very different from the Hollywood fare that had been the bulk of my film-going diet up to that point.

Watching it now, it still seems quite a bravura bit of film-making, though perhaps that is mostly due to Peter O’Toole’s phenomenal performance. He received a much-deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination for it – one of eight Best Actor nominations during his career, giving him the dubious distinction of being the most-nominated actor never to win that award.

The social commentary seems perhaps fairly predictable at this point. It’s hardly shocking now to portray the House of Lords as a mausoleum stuffed with decaying relics attacking progress and spouting the most reactionary viewpoints, nor to show the easy power-sharing arrangements between Lords and Commons to manage British society in the interests of the ruling class. Or to show priests as weak, muddled-headed co-conspirators with those interests. Or the bizarre contortions that the stultifying British class system produced in both high and low.

More pleasing and original is the way in which the upper class people around him respond to Jack Gurney and his delusions. When he believes himself to be the God of Love, and preaches loving kindness, he is beyond the pale, unacceptable. But they get along with him just find when he transforms into something monstrous. Arthur Lowe as the butler, Tucker, is also a high point of the film’s social commentary. A closet anarchist, he stays on as butler even after inheriting a small fortune seemingly for the opportunities it affords for sticking it to his so-called bosses and betters. It’s a terrific performance, as is that of the always wonderful Alastair Sim as the priest in the family.

And some of the dialogue is delicious – again, perhaps in large part because of the way O’Toole delivers it. When Jack Gurney is asked why he believes he is God, he responds, “Simple. When I pray to Him, I find I am talking to myself.” It’s not a particularly fresh or surprising observation at this point, but it is still great fun, as is just about everything O’Toole does in the first part of the film.

When he changes into something dark, an antithesis to the God of Love — I can’t say much because I don’t want to give away the precise nature of his change — there is a different kind of pleasure in his ability to portray this sociopathic darkness, as in this clip:

While I’d remembered the plot of the film very well, and even whole scenes and bits of dialogue, I’d remembered the film as fun — reflecting my pleasure in it when I’d watched it before – and that’s how I pitched it to my friend. And she did find it fun — up until Jack’s transformation, after which she found the darkness a little too convincing, and the film as a result a bit disturbing. And she’s absolutely right — the pleasures it offers are the pleasures of art, in quite generous portions, but the emotional qualities, the message, the feeling at the end is definitely freighted with the darkness of Jack’s transformation.

Whether one comes out of watching it with a sense of pleasure — in the art, the style, O’Toole’s performance — or a bit disturbed seems to me a matter of sensibility and perspective. For me, the pleasure is uppermost with this movie – but certainly in other cases, while I’ve been able to appreciate the art, I haven’t been able to distance myself from the darkness — as, for instance, with Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò (1975) and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1976) — all of which I saw around the same time, and which left me shaken, hurt and unhappy in a way, at the end, rather than pleased at their artistry or intelligence.

(I was interviewed once by Italian TV for a retrospective on Pasolini, and I made the point that I was very glad I’d been able to see Salò on the big screen — and I would never watch it again. Not that I need to. I’ll never forget, be able to forget, some of the scenes from that movie.)

So my friend didn’t exactly “enjoy” The Ruling Class, though she did appreciate it — and was predictably knocked out by Peter O’Toole’s performance. I think these days most people think first of Lawrence of Arabia when they think of O’Toole — that or perhaps his drunken antics or some of the cheesier movies he did in the 1980s that show more frequently on TV than his better work — films like High Spirits (1988) with Steve Guttenberg. Of course, I think of Lawrence — his performance is astonishing, how could it not come to mind — but I also always think of this movie and The Lion in Winter (1968), in which the smaller stories let him loom even larger, or How to Steal a Million (1966) and What’s New Pussycat? (1965), where he’s just so fun and so gorgeous.

Peter O'Toole in "What's New Pussycat?"

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Filed under: Movies,

5 Responses

  1. I think The Ruling Class is quite up to the standards of Peformance and O Lucky Man! (which I think a better film than If. . ., fine as it is), for reasons I give here

    O’Toole’s bravura performance is extraordinary, I’d say the finest of his career, but it doesn’t stand out (except for being obviously the lead role) from any of the other bravura performances by Arthur Lowe, Coral Browne, Alastair Sim, Harry Andrews and all the rest. And it’s always a help when actors have lines as awe-inspiring to speak as Peter Barnes’s.

  2. jim says:

    I agreed about the quality of the film–while it isn’t perfect, it’s rather hilarious at times and never dull. I have an impression that some reviewers (even contemporary pundits) might regard it more critically because of their own biases. A work that challenges traditional religion upon occasion tends to unearth non-objective views in some film criticism.

    • zerode says:

      The film does have a certain challenge to traditional religious beliefs, but I think it’s pretty gentle and/or easy to dismiss. For instance, O’Toole saying he knows he’s God because when he prays he finds he is just talking to himself… I don’t think the Catholic or Anglican church is going to be stung by that these days. At the time, I think that stuff seemed a bit more daring and critical, but a lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. I’m less sure about its critique of British “ruling class” values: I wonder if those still have any sting? It’s interesting to think about in the wake of the recent royal wedding with all its attendant hoopla.
      One thing it shows above all is just how much fun Peter O’Toole is.

  3. The relevant question these days might be how much the ‘class’ criticism has gained in relevance everywhere, perhaps particularly in the U.S.?

    • zerode says:

      I don’t think the class criticism in “The Ruling Class” has gained much relevance in the current context. Not because I don’t think class criticism is important – it’s crucial – and not because I don’t think that there is more naked class war going on in the US than at any time since 1930s or earlier, but simply because the class criticism in the movie is engaged primarily with targets that are not that relevant in the current context – the British aristocracy and the C of E, etc.

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zerode by nick chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Oh - and hello to Jason Isaacs.

The 400 Blows


is an over-caffeinated and under-employed grad school dropout, aspiring leftwing intellectual and cultural studies academic, cinéaste, and former poet. Raised in San Francisco on classic film, radical politics, burritos and soul music, then set loose upon the world. He spends his time in coffee shops with his laptop and headphones, caffeinating and trying to construct a post-whatever life.


What's in a name... The handle "zerode" is a contraction of Zéro de Conduite, the title of Jean Vigo's 1933 movie masterpiece about schoolboy rebellion.



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