My love semi-obscure British cinema from the 1970s is generally encapsulated by films like Ken Russell’s The Devils or Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man. The Ruling Class, a film directed by Peter Medak based on a play by Peter Barnes, is neither quite as transgressive as either movie but probably as oft misread as just something to shock. Still, despite Peter O’Toole’s living performance, the flatness of the scenery, the theatricality of its staging, and the shift tonal oddity of parts of the movie, The Ruling Class may be the bleaker of the three films.
The premise is simple enough: a minor noble house in England has a equally minor succession crisis which results on the original Earl’s estranged son being foisted into the position of head of the family despite his paranoia schizophrenia. Jack, or as he prefers to be called in the beginning, J.C. views himself as a God of love and dresses in a late 60s white suit and wears dime-store Jesus make-up and hair. After his uncle uses his delusions to get him to marry his Uncle’s own former mistress and produce an heir, his psychiatrist, Dr. Herder, tries to cure him quickly, putting him into contact with the electric messiah, another paranoid schizophrenic who believes himself to be much more akin to the Yahweh of the Old Testament. The purpose to force “reality” into one of the patients minds since they can’t both be God, but J.C./Jack experiences the bolts and internalizes a different message. Even the obsession with an electricity may be an illusion here given that Canaanites seemed to have viewed Yahweh originally as some kind of volcano or thunder God. Jack breaks with his view of himself as a God of love, and sees himself as different God. This one mirroring what he sees as virtues of the ruling class itself, Jack imagines himself Jack the Ripper, and become a rousing success in the house of lords while offing or breaking the mind of his family members.
The allegory seems heavy-handed as a analogy of sociopathy of England’s elite, and it is, but there are small scenes and characters with large complications to that analogy. The Butler Tuck, Jack frames for his first murder, is a Bolshevik who himself is dancingly happy with Jack’s first kill declaring his happiness that another one of them is dead, but the Butler is also enabling a very reactionary force when doing so and legitimizing his own imprisonment later. He also is made well-off himself by a gift from his former employer, the late Earl, and thus while his resentment is real, his Bolshevik inclinations are both passive and hypocritical. This, ironically, is happening while Jack’s uncle misreads him as “not just nuts but Bolshie” in his “God of Love” stage.
Indeed, Jack’s transformation is a flower-power Jesus to a lordly sociopath is often read as representing the ruling class’s sociopathy and their inclinations towards religious fanaticism. This is probably all true, but the film has other points here as well. Jack’s earlier romanticism as J.C. was more liberally-inclined but portrayed not only as paranoid but a kin of paranoid that came from profound self-importance. Jack’s flower-power love, despite its radicalism, is also a form of egoistical narcissism. Indeed, while the working class “bolshie” is literally a house servant who accidentally encourages his employer to kill himself in a fit of auto-erotic asphyxiation in a tutu, it is strongly implied that his Marxism came later, partly because he seemed sincerely concerned when his employer died. The implications of that is interesting as well but I am not sure they are entirely intended by the film-makers or the author. Both seem to have revolutionary world views only in so much that they don’t really matter or actually effect anything.
Another element of the film is the monologue of the 13th Earl, who, after telling a delusional but completely conventional speech about the glories of empire to the Society of St. George, hangs himself and gives a speech about being forced into law as opposed to being an artist. His own ramblings and pretensions towards civility manifesting in exhausted self-hatred. The similarities between the 13th and the 14th is that while both are eloquent and both play to the worse pretensions of empire, the 13th may have been more humane the entire time.
So while the obvious analogy about the ending of the 1960s and the affectations of the ruling class abound, it is smaller characters and their implications that actually make this a great story that hits deeper than just an normal indiction of privilege. Barnes play seems to indicate that little has changed during the swinging 60s, and Victorian and Edwardian romps aside, most of what is left is ugliness of the entire Imperium. Medak is a refugee from Hungry and while he may see the rot at the core of the ruling classes, he is also illustrating the rot at the core of them play-acting at liberalism and socialism.
It’s not that Jack the Ripper is Jack’s true form either: it’s the form England rewards him for. One of the more interesting implications of the society, Jack the ripper is Jack’s vision of the God people need and definitely what they respond to. The two church women scandalized by the sexual implications of J.C./Jack asking them about love as rallied on my his song and dance (literally) about breaking people on the rack. Jack sees all the lords as dead meat, and even seems to invert the originally feinted affection that Lady Grace felt. Grace’s love for him growing more and more sincere as he normalizes, a love that literally kills her unceremoniously in one the most profoundly strangely toned ending sequences in cinema.
The defining trait of Jack is not his love or malice, but his sheer blankness and projection of self-importance. It reflects a society that he sees–quite literally in paranoid visions in his House of Lords scene–as dead. The movie is not without difficulties: O’Toole’s drinking during this film was legendary and seemed to lead to sporadic performances that had a vaudeville flare–generally to the film’s benefit, but the abrupt tonal shifts may be due to those performance as well. Female characters do not have really developed motivations beyond witty banter and moving the plot. The theatrical nature of the shooting makes the film look like it is from an era much earlier than 1972. The pacing, particularly in the beginning, is languid. That said, the dialogue and myriad of allegories for post-1968 politics left and right implied in the film make this one of my favorite movies.