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Film: The Ruling Class
The Ruling Class

The Ruling Class is a 1972 British black comedy film, and adaptation of Peter Barnes' satirical stage play which tells the story of Jack, a paranoid schizophrenic British nobleman (played by Peter O'Toole) who inherits enormous power and privilege in Great Britain. His family (and neglected heirs) attempt to steer him into siring an heir which they can look after (along with the massive estate) while Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, is tucked back into a straightjacket. The biggest obstacle: He's convinced he's Jesus Christ.

The film co-stars Alastair Sim, William Mervyn, Coral Browne, Harry Andrews, Carolyn Seymour, James Villiers and Arthur Lowe. It was produced by Jules Buck and directed by Peter Medak. The film is a "commercial failure [...that] has since become a cult classic"; Peter O'Toole described it as "a comedy with tragic relief".


This film provides examples of:


  • All-Loving Hero: As long as he thinks he's Jesus Christ, the 14th Earl of Gurney gets along with everybody.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: A psychiatrist asks the Earl one in the second half. The Earl replies with an Armor Piercing Statement, and seconds later, they're both singing an old college boating song.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: A very strange example, but he does.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: All the Gurneys want is for the 14th Earl to stop referring to himself as Christ, and start answering to his given name, Jack. He does. As in, Jack the Ripper.
  • Becoming the Mask: Grace is recruited to marry the 14th Earl and produce an heir that can take over the estate. She surprises herself when she genuinely falls in love with him.
  • Berserk Button: The 14th Early of Gurney will FLIP OUT if you call him by his given name, Jack, or contest any of his reality, for that matter. Not played for laughs.
  • Black Comedy: The Butler drunkenly discovers Lady Claire dead on the floor. Instead of showing horror, he shouts and cheers for joy that there's one less Gurney in the world.
  • Brainwashed and Crazy: The Gurneys successfully break the 14th Earl of his delusion that he is the Christ. He replaces the role with Jack the Ripper and lives up to the name.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Lady Grace does a burlesque act for the audience, in her wedding dress. On her wedding night.
  • Break Them by Talking: The Earl of Gurney receives this from an equally mad Old Testament 'God', re-inforced by his psychiatrist.
  • Burlesque: Lady Grace does one in her wedding dress. On her wedding night. To the FOURTH WALL.
  • The Butler Did It: Tucker is framed for this to keep Jack out of prison after he murders a lover.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: The 14th Earl of Gurney firmly believes he's Jesus Christ, and a loving god. Harmless as the trope implies until he starts believing he's Jack the Ripper, instead.
  • Dark Messiah: Once he's 'cured', the 14th Earl gains political standing by calling for Old English Values, severe punishments, and decrying anything resembling modernity or change. "Bring back fear!!"
  • Empathic Environment: Thunderheads scream and lightning splits the sky... the night the 14th Earl is broken of his Christ delusion, replaces it with Jack the Ripper, and his wife gives birth.
  • Establishing Character Moment: As Jesus Christ, he enters beneath a halo of sunlight and spouts messages of love and kindness. As Jack the Ripper, he points a gun at his entire family and has a jarring verbal tic.
  • A God Am I: The 14th Earl of Gurney in spades. Shared with and contested by another delusional who believes he is the angry, Old Testament God.
  • Hallucinations: The 14th Earl has a few, between seeing lightning coursing between the Old Testament God's fingers, a man in a gorilla suit, even transporting himself to Edwardian London.
  • Hell Is That Noise: Try this on for size.
  • Important Haircut: The 14th Earl receives one at the midway point. Good-bye, Jesus Christ. Hello, Jack the Ripper.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: The Gurney family is convinced the rightful heir is this, seeing as he's a paranoid schizophrenic who thinks he's Jesus Christ.
  • Jack the Ripper: The delusion that replaces the 14th Earl's far more benevolent Christ role. He murders two women, including his wife.
  • The Jeeves: Tucker is this at turns. The 13th Earl was decidedly eccentric and Tucker didn't bat an eye. The 14th is legitimately insane, and Tucker stays in service. He's rewarded 30,000 pounds for his troubles... and later framed for murder when Jack decides he's Jack the Ripper.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Jack's uncle is reduced to a hospitalized invalid after trying to have his nephew committed. The same goes for his psychiatrist, who ends up contorting painfully under electro-shock therapy.
  • Lie Detector: The 14th Earl is asked if he's God. He says no. The machine says he's lying.
  • Love at First Note: The 14th Earl of Gurney recognizes his 'wife' the second she arrives, singing. He joins her in a duet.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: The 'cured' Jack leads a rousing rendition of 'Dem Bones'... singing about the bones he'd like to break if you put a toe outside Old English Values.
  • The Mentally Disturbed: Charming as he can be, the 14th Earl is legitimately a danger to himself and others.
  • Massive Multiplayer Scam: The 14th Earl of Gurney is convinced he's married to a woman who's been dead for years. His unscrupulous uncle brings him a Mole who plays along. The Earl immediately sees her as the genuine article.
  • Mind Rape: The Gurneys recruit a madman who believes he is the angry, Old Testament God, to break the 14th Earl of his delusions of Christhood. They succeed, to their peril.
  • Mood Whiplash: From playful, lighthearted, musical absurdity in the first half to bleak, borderline horror in the second.
  • Moral Guardians: After his 'cure', Jack becomes one of the lethal variety.
  • The Musical: Certainly qualifies, as characters burst into choreographed numbers on several occasions. Some of the singers are even sane.
  • On One Condition: A clause protects the 13th Earl of Gurney's will from being contested. Any attempt to do so, and the entire estate will be broken up and the proceeds donated to charity.
  • Psycho Psychologist: Dr. Herder.
  • Quick Nip: Tucker sports a glass or a flask in every scene after he receives his inheritance.
  • Really Gets Around: Lady Claire. Grace implies she is too, but happily settles down with Jack.
  • Royally Screwed Up: The 14th Earl of Gurney is completely insane. He's harmless, so long as he thinks he's Jesus Christ. It's a different story once he's Jack the Ripper.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: The 14th Earl of Gurney is *deeply* insulated from the consequences of his actions, thanks to controlling a massive amount of wealth.
  • Servile Snarker: Tucker becomes this after receiving his generous inheritance, and taking to drink.
  • Sex Is Evil: Jack believes this after his 'treatment'. He kills the two women who try to arouse him, as Jack the Ripper.
  • Skyward Scream: Jack gives us a horrifying one, showing he's completely snapped.
  • Strawman Political
  • Talkative Loon: Good luck getting a word in edgewise around the 14th Earl of Gurney.
  • Therapy Backfire: In the second half, the Gurneys try to get the Earl committed. Instead, the psychiatrist JOINS HIM IN SONG and gives him a clean bill of mental health.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: At several points in the picture, it's clear the 14th Earl just doesn't see what other people see.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Dimmesdale. "Oh please help! I'm stuck in the brambles!"
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alternative title(s): The Ruling Class
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