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Film / The Ruling Class

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The Ruling Class

The Ruling Class is a 1972 British black comedy film, and an adaptation of Peter Barnes' satirical stage play which tells the story of Jack Gurney, 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:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Some exposition scenes are added to the film to streamline the story (most of the scenes with Dr. Herder treating Jack, for instance, are not in the play or only alluded to in dialogue) and the musical numbers tend to be more elaborate, as befits a stage-to-screen adaptation. For instance, in the play Jack and Grace only sing the first few lines of "My Blue Heaven" rather than the full-blown duet of the movie.
  • 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 gives an Armor-Piercing Response, and seconds later, they're both singing an old college boating song.
  • Asshole Victim: Tucker the butler probably didn't deserve to be framed for murder, but it's hard to feel too bad for him considering what a cowardly weasel he is, not to mention his reaction to the murder he's framed for.
  • The Bad Guy Wins: A very strange example, but he does. Strange as the main character starts off as a harmless madman and becomes a bloodthirsty madman who earns both political and social standing by spouting his hate speeches while conveniently hiding his delusional thoughts and gets away with at least one murder out of puritanical obsession.
  • 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", reinforced 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.
  • Cerebus Syndrome: The first half of the movie is pretty light and humorous, with some fun musical numbers. Then about half way through, they "cure" Jack in a nightmarish scene that destroys his mind. After that, we see him descend even further into madness, believing himself to be Jack the Ripper and actually committing murder. By the end of the movie, he's making a passionate speech supporting capital punishment in front of the house of Lords... which he hallucinates as a dark cobwebbed room full of skeletons.
  • 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. It's actually ok as long as he believes that God is love. It's different once he believes that the world and God works by cruelty and not by love.
  • God Is Good: Jack subscribes fully to the idea that God is Love, and preaches kindness, compassion, and tolerance everywhere he goes as part of his insistence that he is Jesus. Unfortunately, Herder subjects him to Mind Rape built around brainwashing him that God Is Evil in order to "cure" him. Needless to say, it doesn't end well.
  • 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.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: What Jack becomes after switching to his Jack the Ripper persona, developing a pathological and puritanical hatred of women and especially sexual women.
  • Herr Doktor: Dr. Herder is a relatively subdued example: he's German, but his accent is muted and he's more of a detached professional than a raving madman. One scene also implies that he's Jewish and survived a Nazi death camp, which severely distorted his own sense of morality.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Herder is one of the most horrific examples put to screen. His Psycho Psychologist behavior is motivated more by hateful spite that Jack believes in a benevolent God then anything.
  • I Just Want to Be Loved: Sadly the whole reason that Jack has this whole J.C. delusion stems from neglect and being bullied in his formative years so he needed to believe that he was someone special who is love incarnate so that he can feel exactly what he missed all his life.
  • 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.
  • 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. It doubles as a brief Villain Song with members of the community like Dinsdale, Mrs. Treadwell and Mrs. Piggot-Smith joining him.
  • Meaningful Name: Barrow Gurney is a small parish in Somerset which was the home to a well-known mental hospital until 2008. As playwright Peter Barnes attended school in nearby Stroud, it's likely the naming was intentional.
  • The Mentally Disturbed: Charming as he can be, the 14th Earl is legitimately a danger to himself and others.
  • Mind Rape: Dr. Herder after speaking with Claire recruits 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. Unusually the Mind Rape is about showing him the reality and taking him out of his comfort zone rather than driving him nuts. It is still unspeakably painful for him.
  • Mood Whiplash: From playful, relatively lighthearted, musical absurdity in the first half to bleak, borderline horror in the second.
    • In fact even the first half had a few brief somber moments like the doctor explaining that the emotional trauma and feelings of abandonment and abuse lead Jack to adopt the J.C. persona, or even more whenever the Gurneys and the Doctor ganged up on him and forced him to face the unpleasant truth.
  • 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 or rather most of the singers are even sane.
  • Napoleon Delusion: Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, is convinced that he is Jesus Christ. Then, after his "treatment", he is convinced that he is Jack the Ripper.
  • 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. After a point, it becomes clear that he cares less about curing Jack and more about hatefully breaking the man's spirit and destroying his faith in God out of petty spite over the fact that Jack dares to believe in a benevolent, loving God.
  • 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.
  • Straw Nihilist: Dr. Herder. He beats his hopelessly pessimistic and cynical view of the world as a horrid place of evil that no God of love could have made into Jack. And lives to regret it.
  • Strawman Political: Rich, privileged and conservative Britons, needless to say, don't come off well, with the ideology of the "ruling class" overtly compared with a murderer's psychosis. Then again, the only alternatives we see are Psycho Psychologist Dr. Herder and Tuck, a closeted communist who spends half the film drunk and admits he's too cowardly to do much more than snark at his employers.
  • Talkative Loon: Good luck getting a word in edgewise around the 14th Earl of Gurney.
  • Therapy Backfire: In the second half, Charles Gurney tries 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: Dinsdale. "Oh please help! I'm stuck in the brambles!"
  • Word-Salad Humor: Jack's prone to this in the first half. Many of the things he says are rather random about places, animals, and people and show his abstract thoughts of love for the whole world.