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Grand Delusion

Two veddy proper ladies glide into the parlor of a palatial English manor for their audience with Jack, 14th Earl of Gurney, a nobleman whom the locals suspect is tweaked. Sure enough, Jack is a flamboyant loon who thinks he’s God. After Jack makes a handful of blasphemous comments, the ladies rise from their seats—but not to leave. Instead, they join Jack and his butler in an impromptu musical number, dancing and singing to music that emanates from who-knows-where, then slip back to reality after the song as if nothing odd happened.

A song-and-dance interlude outside the context of a musical is peculiar, but this scene is only mildly abnormal by the standards of The Ruling Class, a freakshow of a satire recently issued on DVD by the world-class preservationists of the Criterion Collection. Released in 1972, the picture is director Peter Medak’s wild adaptation of an angry play by Peter Barnes. As the title suggests, Barnes’ play is a venomous look at the upper echelons of British society, and his choice of protagonist—an earl so delusional he believes himself divine—is a good indication of the unsubtle nature of the piece. As often happened in extreme British entertainment of the period, whether the comedy of the Monty Python troupe or the outrageous movies directed by Ken Russell, the sledgehammer quality of the satire is leavened by unfettered imagination and mellifluous language.

The movie begins with Jack’s father, the 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews), demonstrating his own brand of madness by dressing in a tutu and military regalia before performing a bizarre rite of masochistic self-asphyxiation. After his death, his estate is bequeathed to Jack (Peter O’Toole), a raving lunatic who has spent years in a psychiatric hospital. Predictably, Jack’s relatives scheme to get the mad earl out of the way in order to take control of the family’s wealth.

The biggest schemer in the clan is Sir Charles (William Mervyn), who epitomizes the intolerant qualities of British entitlement: It never occurs to him to nurture or accommodate Jack, so Charles quickly conjures a plan by which Jack will be robbed of his inheritance. The plan hinges on Grace (Carolyn Seymour), Charles’ nubile mistress, who agrees to seduce and marry Jack in order to produce an heir, thereby increasing her own social standing. A great deal of the tension in the movie comes from guessing how completely Jack will be swindled, and determining whether his vestigial sanity will be sufficient for him to turn the scheme on the schemers.

The movie is filled with insane interludes that underline the enraged social commentary of the plot. Bishop Lampton (Alastair Sim), an aging clergyman with close ties to the Gurney clan, sputteringly objects to various misdeeds committed
by Charles, but is persuaded to endorse such misbehavior simply by virtue of Charles’ station. Watching the bishop react to Jack’s ramblings about being God is precious, and also a sharp depiction of the ridiculous obligations that deference to members of the ruling class creates.

It’s been said that for everything in The Ruling Class that works, something fails, and that’s true to some extent. The movie is quite long, at two and a half hours, and its shifts from light comedy to dark allegory are startling. But the sheer vigor of the movie is astounding. The dance numbers have the happy-go-lucky veneer of old Hollywood musicals, the shock cuts have the youthful spark of French new-wave pictures, and the dialogue scenes, while inarguably theatrical, have a kind of lopsided poetry. It helps that the DVD presents the movie in such pristine fashion that it looks as if it was made last year, not three decades ago.

And while all of the performances are powerful or at least energetic, O’Toole is given ample means by which to run roughshod over all of his costars. Never an actor known for his restraint, O’Toole is at his over-the-top best, screaming his way through monologues, employing his spidery limbs to vivid effect whether dancing or dangling from a cross, and seeming equally at home with starry-eyed naiveté and chilling psychosis. Considering that madness is now regularly played in movies for cheap sympathy or vulgar horror, watching O’Toole play countless shadings of mental disease is a pleasure and a surprise.

The Ruling Class is a cult classic in the truest sense, not only because it has been embraced by small contingents of movie lovers, but because its strange allure is the kind of intoxicant to which fans can return on a regular basis. The movie may well be crass, lunkheaded and dated, but those qualities reflect the glorious abandon with which the movie was surely made.

—Peter Hanson

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