The 13th Earl of Gurney (Harry Andrews) returns home from a dinner engagement at one of his clubs and prepares for bed, chatting away to his butler Tucker (Arthur Lowe) about how much he respects the institutions of Britain and England's green and pleasant land while he divests himself of his garments. Tucker picks up after him, and once they reach the bedroom he has a choice of nooses to offer the Earl, for before he turns in His Lordship likes to indulge in a spot of auto-erotic asphixiation. Settling for the silk one, he puts on his military jacket, hat and tutu and Tucker leaves him for a while, not realising this is the last time he will see the Earl alive...
Well, there's an arresting way to begin a film, with a character accidentally taking a sex game too far, but The Ruling Class started as it meant to go on by cutting down the British institutions that writer Peter Barnes, here adapting his own play, had in his sights. Of course, what was offensive back in 1972 has lost some of its power to dismay polite society nowadays, but the film remains striking nevertheless, if not for its rather obvious targets and the way it treats them, then for its superb cast who made it all look so relevant. In some ways it still is as there may not be the same level of deference to church and state in the United Kingdom that there was when this was written, but the whole class system is still hanging around.
Leading that cast was Peter O'Toole, as the last surviving son of the Earl whose real name is Jack but now answers to the name of Jesus Christ or God. Jack, we are told by his doctor, is a paranoid schizophrenic who is convinced that he is the Almighty, and if there was one actor you'd like to play a deity, wouldn't it be O'Toole? He comes across as so right for the part, resembling a three-dimensional Shroud of Turin, whether he is a crazy nobleman or the genuine Jehovah, which Jack is not, but Barnes has us thinking that in this state he makes so much sense that we would not mind him adopting the mantle, what with his tenets of love and divine decency, not to mention his tendency to break out into song and dance routines. His family, however, have other ideas and need to get him pronounced cured no matter the dire consequences.
They need this so that he can marry and produce an heir, who will then be given the title and Jack packed off to the insane asylum where he will live out the rest of his days in obscurity and his own blissful ignorance. His uncle, Charles (William Mervyn), is the chief instigator of this plot and arranges for one of his lady friends, actress and stripper Grace (Carolyn Seymour), to woo Jack by posing as his make believe wife (he thinks he was married years ago). This works like a charm, and soon not only is Jack wedded, but Grace is pregnant, and Charles feels secure in the knowledge that all will soon be well. What he has not counted on is that his nephew's madness will now manifest itself in other, ironically more acceptable ways.
This is brought out in one of the setpieces where Jack is effectively exorcised by another mental patient (Nigel Green, dubbed in his last role) who also has convinced himself he is God, but a far less benevolent one than Jack ever was. Suitably chastised by the harsh realities of life, he prepares to take on the title of Earl, but now nobody cares to acknowledge he is the embodiment of Jack the Ripper, complete with a tendency to murder women. As you can see, there's a lot to include in The Ruling Class and it takes its time about it so that two and a half hours of this can appear on the overgenerous side. O'Toole carries it in one of his finest roles, relishing the grandiose language his character gets to speak as well as the silly comedy, and there is quite a bit farcical about the humour, more so than the satirical you might expect. The conclusion that the upper classes are dangerously crazy but tolerated while the rest of us are under their yoke might not be revolutionary, but the film is full of sharp lines and imagery (Jack wrestling a man in a gorilla suit during a thunderstorm, the House of Lords filled with dessicated corpses) that render it more than a simple relic of the anti-establishment. Music by John Cameron.