Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Peter O'Toole, Alastair Sim, Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, Carolyn Seymour
Director:  Peter Medak
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  154 Minutes
Release Date:  October 30, 2001

“How do you know you're God?”

“Simple.  When I pray to Him, I find I'm talking to myself.”

Film ***

The Ruling Class is a mishmash film, filled with scenes to make you laugh til it hurts and others to make you recoil in horror.  It's parody with teeth fully bared…one can almost argue that it attacks its targets of government, social structure and how the mentally disabled fits amongst it all so ferociously that it almost forgoes comedy for the sake of viciousness.  Yet, laugh we do.

The story suggests madness is not only commonplace in the ruling class of the British House of Lords, but a prerequisite.  As long as it is the right kind of madness, that is.  Take the 13th Earl of Gurney (Andrews), whom we meet only briefly at the beginning.  He rails rather incoherently and high society eats it up…shortly afterwards, he hangs himself while wearing a tutu.

Much to the dismay of his family, he leaves his house and the bulk of his estate to his son Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney (O'Toole).  The problem?  While the father was excusably mad, the son is less so.  He has been receiving voluntary psychiatric treatment for the past several years to no avail.  He believes he is Jesus Christ.

A man believing himself God is of no use to the House of Lords, particularly one who brings a message of love the way Jack does.  His outraged family decides to take their only legal course of action…Jack needs to marry and have a son, then be committed, so the family can take charge of the estate until said son is old enough to do so for himself.

They create a bride for him, practically out of thin air, in Grace Shelley (Seymour), who acts out the role of an operatic heroine for Jack.  The scene where they marry, in front of a hapless bishop (Sim), is hysterical, especially since Jack won't stop referring to himself as God!

The real point of all of this is…and it takes a bit too long to get there…is that Jack is “cured” as the story progresses, but he goes from thinking he's Jesus Christ to thinking he's Jack the Ripper.  His message of love dissipates into nightmarish visions of brutality and murder.  It's not a real cure, obviously, but it gets him acceptance into the House of Lords.  The governing body has no place for talk of love, but let a wild man show up proclaiming the virtues of flogging and executions, and he fits right in.  The finale of the film is unforgettable, as the House of Lords keeps changing into a decrepit wasted crypt before our eyes, and when Jack, overcome with his new power, murders his wife…her shattering scream is the picture's ultimate punctuation mark.

The picture is filled with wonderful ideas, especially the impromptu musical numbers (when Jack first breaks into “The Varsity Drag”, it will floor you) and plenty of witty dialogue, but ultimately, the good parts don't seem to gel as much as they should.  There is a pointed lack of real structure at play here, caused by a simple idea that simply takes too long to execute.

The performances are first rate, especially Mr. O'Toole, who shines in a complex and flamboyant role.  His spirit elevates some of the weaker material and keeps it interesting for us.

But in considering the satirical aspects, I couldn't help but think that writer Peter Barnes and director Peter Medak went a little too far.  The point they wanted to get across was very clear, but they pushed the limits of satire almost into the realm of spoof, and risked losing the potency of their message in the process.  Not since Jonathan Swift penned “A Modest Proposal” has political satire been taken so to the extreme, and in remembering that many took Mr. Swift's work to be a serious suggestion, we are reminded that sometimes a little restraint is in order.

NOTE:  The running length of 154 minutes marks the first time this movie has been available in the United States uncut…previous versions ran at least thirteen minutes shorter.

Video ***1/2

Yet another quality anamorphic offering from Criterion, The Ruling Class is presented with a remarkably clear print, and the newly mastered transfer is very good.  Colors especially receive the benefit of the labor, coming across with a full palate of natural looking tones that are rendered without distortions or bleeding.  Images are generally sharp and clear, with strong detail in every level of focus.  I noticed only one scene of Jack alone that exhibited a little shimmer from age, but it was gone rather quickly.  Overall, for a thirty year old film, this DVD offerings is quite pleasing.

Audio ***

The audio mix is the simple original mono one, but it earns a little extra merit for dynamic range, most of which is created by the intensity of O'Toole's performance.  The musical numbers also sound quite good.  Scenes with echo effects will have you convinced you're hearing more than a single track of audio…a very nice job.

Features ***

There is a new commentary track featuring separate recordings of star Peter O'Toole, director Peter Medak, and writer Peter Barnes (“the three Peters”, as Medak quips), which is a good and informative listen…I for one was very glad for their participation.  There is also a trailer, a collection of Medak's home movies shot during the production of the film, and a collection of publicity and behind-the-scenes stills.


The Ruling Class isn't perfect, but it has much to like about it, including an acidic sense of humor, terrific comic performances, and an unapologetic attitude toward its subject matter.  Fans of this classic British film should be happy with this quality Criterion DVD, with a good picture and audio quality and the full running time restored.