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The Criterion Collection presents
The Ruling Class (1972)

Dr. Herder: He's a paranoid schizophrenic.
Sir Charles: A paranoid schizophrenic? But he's a Gurney!
Dr. Herder: Then he's a paranoid schizophrenic Gurney who believes he's God.
Sir Charles: But we've always been Church of England!

- (Michael Bryant, William Mervyn)

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: October 23, 2001

Stars: Peter O'Toole, Alastair Sim, Arthur Lowe, Harry Andrews, Coral Browne, William Mervyn
Other Stars: Michael Bryant, Nigel Green, Carolyn Seymour, James Villiers, Graham Crowden
Director: Peter Medak

Manufacturer: Modern VideoFilm, L.A.
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (language, brief nudity, sexual references and situations)
Run Time: 02h:34m:03s
Release Date: October 30, 2001
UPC: 715515012423
Genre: black comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A-B+B- B+

DVD Review

Some targets are easier than others. The English upper classes are a notably easy target, having been mercilessly mocked by the Monty Python troupe for their various, inbred absurdities. Here, the controversial 1960s' satire of the English upper crust successfully makes the transition from the stage to screen, thanks largely to a superb cast.

Ralph, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews), returns home to his palatial estate from a England-boosting, patriotic speaking engagement, and promptly manages to kill himself through autoerotic asphyxiation gone bad (don't try this at home, kids). The next in line for the earldom and the substantial property that goes with it is his son Jack (Peter O'Toole), who unfortunately believes that he is God, wed to Marguerite Gauthier (Dumas' Lady of the Camellias). Jack comes complete with a giant cross that he installs in the living room, where he often writhes in religious ecstasy. His uncle, Sir Charles Gurney (William Mervyn) cannot abide this notion, and schemes to have his nephew declared mad or alternatively to arrange for Jack to wed his own mistress, Grace Shelley (Carolyn Seymour), to produce a more suitable heir. Jack's psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), concocts a plan to cure the heir of his delusion of grandeur by bringing to him another maniac who believes himself to be God (Nigel Green). Although this appears to do the trick, Jack has instead adopted a new identity: that of Jack the Ripper. However, the Ripper himself fits beautifully into the House of Lords, whereas the God of love had no place there whatsoever.

The film, here restored to add over half-an-hour of deleted material, is dripping with superb performances, beginning with that of O'Toole, who is alternately batty, intense, trivial and delightful. The rest of the cast is also made up of notable stage actors. William Mervyn is suitably stuffy and single-minded. Harry Andrews is an utter joy as the hawkish and perverse 13th Earl. Also notable is Arthur Lowe, as Tucker, the butler who is left a sizable fortune by the 13th Earl, but stays on butling because he's too used to it to do anything else; however, the money instills complete disrespect for the Gurneys and he is quite hilarious in his contempt for the upper crust. Alastair Sim (best remembered for portraying Ebenezer Scrooge) is also quite funny as the dotty bishop who is reluctant to comply with Sir Charles' machinations.

There is plenty of innovative technique here as well. At moments, the cast will break into popular song from the early 20th century, such as the Varsity Drag and My Blue Heaven. At other times, color washes out, or the acting echoes the silent screen. Some vivid and nasty dream sequences are also included, such as Jack's climactic imagining of the House of Lords as a band of decayed, cobweb-covered zombies. O'Toole's initial entrance is built up beautifully, with tension as to what this mad Jack might be like; when he does enter, there is a brief flare over his head to make him almost appear as if he has a halo.

The pivotal sequence where the two Gods are brought together is a thematic and cinematic tour de force. Whereas Jack is the New Testament God of love, Nigel McKyle, billing himself as the Electric Messiah, is nothing less than the Old Testament deity, full of wrath and thirst for blood. There are interesting angles used, including high POV shots from atop Jack's giant cross. Of course, the New Testament version is no match for the brutality of the primitive deity, even in their maniacal personifications, and Jack's cracking and disintegration is painful to see. A Victorian gorilla manhandles Jack in a prefiguring of the epitome of Victorian wickedness that will be Jack's future fate.

The Ruling Class, and its sympathetic portrait of a madman, invites inevitable comparisons with Harvey. Where the family there is talked out of having Elwood P. Dowd returned to a bitter and unpleasant sanity, here the the challenge is taken and we get to see what happens when the madness of love is rejected in favor of the brutality of real life. Is it a parting shot at the nobility that allows the bitterness to overtake the humor? That seems to be the case.

While the target of the English upper class may seem too easy, it is worth remembering that even at this point the Lords have real political power—despite having no qualifications whatsoever besides birth—acting as the British Supreme Court, among other powers. The satire of the piece thus hasn't really dated badly and bears significance even now.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Rationo

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic widescreen transfer, by and large, looks quite nice. Taken from an interpositive, the image is, for the most part, excellent, with hardly a speck or scratch to be seen. Color is generally quite good, although a few exterior shots have a greenish cast to them. Black levels are excellent. Some minor ringing is noted, but overall this is a very good picture. The manor house where the movie was shot is chockfull of baroque detail and this all comes across with admirable clarity. On occasion, such as Grace's striptease or the scene of the breakfast after Jack's wedding night, the detail appears a bit digital. The framing appears to be modified from 1.66:1.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The soundtrack is presented in the original 1.0 mono. Minor hiss is detectable throughout. In the segment where music from La Traviata is borrowed, some distortion is audible. For the most part, however, the music sounds decent while a bit on the tinny side.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
Production Notes
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director Peter Medak, writer Peter Barnes and star Peter O'Toole
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL
Layers Switch: 01h:34m:55s

Extra Extras:
  1. Still gallery
  2. Peter Medak's home movies from the set
Extras Review: Criterion provides another winner of a special edition here. First and foremost is an informative, scene-specific commentary with the three Peters at the center of production: director Peter Medak, writer Peter Barnes and star Peter O'Toole. It's certainly nice to have a commentary from O'Toole on a picture that depends so heavily upon him, and he has some good material, though the editing tends to favor director Medak a bit more in terms of percentage of content. However, all of the participants have consistently thoughtful and incisive comments on the film, in addition to the usual anecdotes.

A set of oddly apologetic production notes is included in the flyer, as well as a cast and chapter list. Chaptering is quite inadequate for a film of this length.

A 39m:08s set of Peter Medak's home movies from the set makes an appearance. These are completely silent, which is disappointing. A narration from Medak (or at least some identification of the crew would have been nice). The sequence opens with some horseplay, including Sim in full costume as the bishop, playing cricket. Much of the duration is devoted to the concluding House of Lords sequence, and tends to get a little tiresome until the zombies make their appearance (nothing like zombies to liven up anything, I always say). There's some intriguing footage of the makeup and masks being applied and testing the mechanical apparatus of the skeletons.

About 175 production and behind-the-scenes stills are provided, all from Medak's own collection. Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of attention paid to the striptease sequence. Wrapping up the package is a blurry trailer from the original release. Oh, and the main feature comes complete with the BBFC 'X' rating card.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

A droll and biting British black comedy, leaving few foibles of the English upper classes unsullied. A very nice transfer, with excellent extras makes this a recommended addition to your library.


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