Ruling Class, The (1972)


Adapted by Peter Barnes from his own satirical play, Peter Medak’s “The Ruling Class” depicts the delusions of Jack (Peter O’Toole), the fourteenth Earl of Gurney, after the collapse of the thirteenth Earl (Harry Andrews), while practicing one of the fetishes he acquired during a long, rigorous service to his country. Holding that he is Jesus Christ, the new Earl is labeled as a paranoid schizophrenic, especially as he preaches the gospel of love.

Meanwhile, the family butler Tucker (Arthur Lowe) reveals his socialist views, having been left 30,000 pounds by his late employer. The family conspires with the butler to induce Jack to marry and produce an heir so that he can be declared insane and be confined. He marries his father’s mistress, but on the eve of the birth of a prospective heir, the family’s psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), brings a real schizophrenic, who also believes himself to be God with the kind of conviction that shatter Jack’s illusory identity.

Jack then switches over to his “real identity” of an extreme right-wing aristocrat with some Jack-the-Ripper tendencies. After murdering his wife and sister-in-law, crimes for which the butler is arrested, Jack makes a ferocious speech in the House of Lords.

Medak’s film uses satirical burlesque to expose the perceived archaism of the British class system, particularly the aristocracy, portraying them as privileged, decadent residents. The plot is admittedly convoluted, but the film makes some good satirical points, often conveyed by the corpulent butler’s asides made directly to the audience.


Oscar Nominations: 1

Actor: Peter O’Toole


Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context:

The winner of the Best Actor Oscar in 1972 was Marlon Brando for “The Godfather,” in race that included Michael Caine for “Sleuth,” Laurence Olivier, also for “Sleuth,” and Paul Winfield for “Sounder.”