Friday, 16 May 2008


The Ruling Class is a 1972 film adaptation of Peter Barnes' satirical stage play which tells the story of a paranoid schizophrenic British nobleman (played by Peter O'Toole) who inherits a peerage. The co-stars include Alastair Sim as his uncle, an addled (but not insane) bishop, William Mervyn as Sir Charles, Coral Browne as his wife, Harry Andrews as the 13th Earl of Gurney, Carolyn Seymour as Grace, James Villiers as his dim-witted, foppish cousin and Arthur Lowe as Tucker the butler. It was produced by Jules Buck and directed by Peter Medak. Peter O'Toole described the movie as "a comedy with tragic relief".[1]


Jack Gurney, the 14th Earl of Gurney, at first he thinks he is God and shocks his family and friends with his talk of returning to the world to bring it love and charity, not to mention his penchant for breaking out into song and dance routines and sleeping upright on a cross. When faced with unpalatable facts (such as his identity as the 14th Earl), Jack puts them in his "galvanized pressure cooker" and they disappear. His unscrupulous uncle, Sir Charles, marries him to his own mistress, Grace, in hopes of producing an heir and putting his nephew in an institution; the plan fails when Grace actually falls in love with Gurney.
Gurney gains another ally in Sir Charles' wife (Coral Browne), who hates her husband and befriends Gurney just to spite him. She also begins sleeping with Gurney's psychiatrist, Dr. Herder, to persuade him to cure Gurney quickly.
Herder attempts to cure him through intensive psychotherapy, but this is to no avail, as Gurney so thoroughly believes that he is the 'God of Love' that, ironically, he dismisses any suggestion to the contrary as the rambling of lunatics. The night his wife goes into labour with their child, Herder makes one last effort at therapy; he introduces Gurney to a patient who also believes himself to be Christ, or, as the patient puts it, "The Electric Messiah" (Nigel Green), who subjects an unwitting Gurney to electroshock therapy. The plan is to use the electroshock to (literally) jolt Gurney out of his delusions, showing him that the two men could not both be God, and so he must be operating under hallucinations. The plan works, and, as Grace delivers a healthy baby boy, Gurney returns to his senses and reclaims his true identity proclaiming "I'm Jack, I'm Jack".
Sir Charles, still intent on stealing the lordship, sends for a court psychiatrist to evaluate Gurney, confident that his nephew would be sent to an asylum for life. He is once again thwarted, however, when the psychiatrist discovers that Gurney was a fellow Old Etonian, bonds with him, and declares him sane.
Gurney soon relapses into mental illness, however, this time believing himself to be Jack the Ripper. Now a violent psychopath with a puritanical hatred of women, Gurney murders Sir Charles' wife in a fit of enraged revulsion when the aging woman tries to seduce him. He frames the Communist family butler, Tucker, for the murder, and assumes his place in the House of Lords with a fiery speech in favour of capital and corporal punishment. Ironically, the speech is wildly applauded, and the lords have no idea that it is the ranting of a madman, in contrast to society's reaction when Gurney believed he was Christ. That night, he murders Grace for expressing her love for him.
The story's ending is ambiguous; it is left open to interpretation whether Gurney gets caught, or escapes detection to kill again.

Production, release and reaction

The screenplay was adapted by Peter Barnes from his play with few major changes. It cost around $1.4 million, with O'Toole working for free (he was instead paid a great deal for the big budget Man of La Mancha, released by the same studio later the same year). It was filmed at a sprawling estate in Harlaxton with the interiors reconstructed on sound stages.
It was the official British entry at the Cannes Film Festival in 1972, but divided critics. The New York Times described it as "fantastic fun" and Variety called it "brilliantly caustic", but the Los Angeles Times called it "snail-slow, shrill and gesticulating" and Newsweek said it was a "sledgehammer satire". Despite mixed critical reaction to the film, O'Toole's performance was universally praised and garnered numerous pretigious awards and prizes, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. Reportedly, when United Artists, its North American distributor, told producer Jules Buck that it would be cutting the film extensively for US release, Buck punched the company's London representative and bought the film back. Avco Embassy then bought distribution rights and cut its 154-minute running time by six minutes.[2]
In 1974, following an earlier-than-normal TV screening of the film on BBC TV, which broke a gentlemen's agreement allowing a 'window' of theatrical distribution before any TV screening, the UK's Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association (the theatrical distributors' association) recommended its members black all future movies produced by Jules Buck.[3]
An unsuccessful stage version of the movie opened in Philadelphia in 1997 with some plot changes, for example Jesus was changed to the Dalai Lama.[4]

Awards and nominations

1972: National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, USA - Won NBR Award (Best Actor) - Peter O'Toole
1972: Cannes Film Festival, France - Nominated for the Palme d'Or
1973: Academy Awards, USA - Nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor) - Peter O'Toole
1973: Golden Globe Awards, USA - Nominated for the Golden Globe for Best English Language Foreign Film


1-^ The Independent on Sunday (London), 23rd July 2001. Retrieved on 2007-09-23.
2-^ The Independent on Sunday (London), 23rd July 2001. Retrieved on 2007-09-23.
3-^ British Film Institute 'Key Events' list for 1974. Retrieved on 2007-09-23.
4-^ Variety review. Retrieved on 2007-09-23.

External links

The Ruling Class at the Internet Movie Database
A film clip in which the O'Toole character claims that he is Jesus Christ and presents a "miracle" can be viewed here.
Criterion Collection essay by Ian Christie
Retrieved from ""


There's one scene in the film "The Fall of the Roman Empire", when emperor Commodus (Christopher Plummer) is dying at the hands of Livius (Stephen Boyd), that I will never forget.
Commodus is exhaling in the arms of his killer and whispers to Livius: "...if you listen very carefully you'll hear the gods laughing".
This sentence still echoes in my mind when something happens:a crisis, a painful episode or an unexpected developement coming to an end. When everything calms down, when peace and silence claim their rights over recently stroken lives, then, I use to rise my eyes up at the sky and, with no surprise, I visiualise a mocking Commodus saying:
-"...if you listen very carefully you'll hear the gods laughing".
We, humans, allways want to find a reason for everything that happens, specially if it is bad. We have the need to lay down the blame on something or someone: we blame nature,God, government or each other. Everything or everyone within our reach is good to put the blame on, with one exception...ourselves.
Indeed, if we listen very carefully we'll hear the gods laughing !!!

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