Peter O’Toole is perhaps the greatest actor of all time. From his breakout role in Lawrence of Arabia to his final roles on television and in cinema as the dignified elder statesman of great acting, O’Toole was an absolute titan of acting, and each of his performances were brilliant. Now many people point to the aforementioned Lawrence of Arabia as his great screen performance – and it truly was – but my personal opinion is that his greatest achievement was the bizarre and irreverent The Ruling Class, one of the most bizarre and batty films I have ever seen, and one that I adored absolutely and without any hesitation, and is quite simply a hidden gem of cinema.
The Ruling Class concerns a dignified older British lord that dies in an accidental suicide, and his family is dismayed to discover that he has left his entire estate to his son, Jack (Peter O’Toole). Jack is a man who believes himself to be Jesus Christ – and with his long blonde hair and unkempt beard, O’Toole convinces us of his own godly nature through this performance. In reality, Jack quite simply suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, and his belief that he is The Almighty is quite simply just the biggest of his plethora of strange and sometimes frustrating quirks. Jack’s family has to deal with the recent addition to their lives, and considering they are power-hungry and lust for the life of nobility, they do everything in their power to ensure that Jack gets put back in the loony bin, where they believe he belongs, and considering his behavior, the audience doesn’t entirely disagree that the best place for Jack is very far away.
O’Toole commits to this role unlike anything I’ve ever seen an actor attempt. Many performers battle the elements, or transform their bodies significantly, in an attempt to show off their dedication to the role. However, O’Toole doesn’t quite change his own appearance very much, rather concentrating on creating the most bizarre and endearing character he’s ever put on screen. Running, jumping, screaming and dancing, O’Toole does an absolutely stellar job of making Jack an absolute riot, and the film an unforgettable experience. There are many flaws in The Ruling Class, but O’Toole’s performance is most certainly not one of them, and it is in fact quite the contrary – he is absolutely marvelous, and gives one of the most dedicated and delightful film performances of the decade. I am hesitant to say this, but O’Toole could probably have given my favorite performance of the 1970s here, and considering that he was up against some stiff competition, it is a great achievement. If there was any doubt that Peter O’Toole was an absolute acting titan, The Ruling Class confirms it at every turn.
However, this is not only a showcase for Peter O’Toole, because the supporting cast does give the film their very best. The small but important supporting cast of characters consist of some more unheralded British performers, all of which are given their moments to shine. William Mervyn plays Sir Charles Gurney, the power-hungry brother of the deceased Ralph Gurney, who plots the downfall of Jack. Mervyn is spectacularly good in the role of the bitter and nasty Charles, and his final dramatic scene is both heartbreaking and hilarious. James Villier, who has one of the most delightful voices in cinema history, plays Dinsdale, Jack’s dimwitted and uptight cousin, and Villiers is responsible for some of the most hilarious moments in the film (“Help, I’m stuck in the brambles” being one of my favorite lines in cinema history). Arthur Lowe is an absolute scene-stealer as the butler, Daniel Tucker, who begins as a dedicated manservant, but evolves into a vicious, malicious man who serves his master well, right up until the very end. Alastair Sim is tremendous as Bishop Lampton, a clergyman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Coral Browne tackles a difficult role, and makes the uptight Lady Claire endearing. Carolyn Seymour holds her own against some majestic performances, and does a great job infusing some much needed youth and vitality into the film.
The Ruling Class is a long film. Clocking in at 150 minutes, it is way longer than a film of its nature, but yet it doesn’t seem to ever feel overlong or uselessly dragging. Instead, it tells a film of epic proportions, and we see the transformation of Jack from a Christ-like figure into a literal murderer so perfectly and with such brilliance. The film throws so much detail and new perspective into the film, and there are shades of everyone, from William Shakespeare to Oscar Wilde to Carry On to Monty Python reflected in this film. A particular bright spot in this film are the constant and random musical numbers, usually performed by O’Toole, all of which are useless, all of which are brilliant. The director, Peter Medak, handles the film well, and while it can be sometimes difficult to follow, it has a pay-off that is both hilarious and terrifying, and packs a real punch that many films don’t dare achieve.
The Ruling Class is a great film. It has somewhat faded into obscurity, because I suspect its zany nature and its tendency to touch on some very strange themes did put off quite a few people. However, I adored it, and anyone who wants a really strange dark comedy with a ton of controversial subject matter and some great performances need not look further than The Ruling Class. Hilarious, strange and wonderfully constructed, it is truly a fantastic film, and one I wish was regarded higher than simply the cult film it is today. It is a great film, and I implore anyone who loves Peter O’Toole to check it out if you haven’t already. It really is wonderful, and you will not be disappointed.