The Ruling Class may not be recognized as a neglected masterpiece—at least, not yet. But if we remember how long it took for Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons and Renoir’s Rules of the Game to be recognized as supreme anatomies of social unease, perhaps its time will come. Returning to Peter Medak and Peter Barnes’ film nearly thirty years after first reviewing it and being carried away by the bravura set-pieces, I’m reminded of how paradoxical it was from the outset. A film seemingly out of its time, tilting at windmills such as the aristocracy, the church, foxhunting, the House of Lords. Who cared about these symbols of Old England after the swinging Sixties? And yet, however much it parodies a traditional farce - mad earl, bibulous butler and sadistic German psychiatrist - both play and film appeared between the great Profumo-Keeler society sex scandal of 1963, which rocked the British government, and the mysterious disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1973, after apparently murdering his nanny in mistake for his wife. Here life, and indeed death, seemed to imitate art, even in its most caricatured form.
The truth is that Barnes’ play, at least, was very much a product of the rupture of 1968, and its political message is that, beneath a veneer of modernization, very little had changed in Britain. An advocate of hanging and flogging (“we’ve forgotten how to punish,” Gurney proclaims to a rapturous House of Lords) will always be more welcome to the Establishment than a gently deluded religious mystic. But Barnes was never merely a cynic or a polemicist: steeped in the history of drama from the Jacobeans and Shakespeare’s rival Ben Johnson to Artaud and Brecht, he wanted to challenge English audiences’ cozy relationship with their theatre of “reassurance." So the violent gear-changes from comedy, to pathos, to horror, are central to his eruption onto the British stage in the '60s, along with such figures as John Arden, Edward Bond, and Peter Nichols.
But is it a true film? Critics spent what now seems an inordinate amount of space debating how something so “theatrical” could be true cinema (apparently forgetting how steeped the beginnings of cinema had been in the great melodrama tradition, how much Welles owed to the Mercury Theatre and, more recently, how much the revival of British cinema in the 60s depended on the Royal Court Theatre—think of Osborne, Richardson, Finney). Certainly The Ruling Class isn’t “filmic” in the style of the French or Eastern European New Waves, but what it succeeds in doing, after a decade when location shooting and naturalistic acting had become fashionable, is reinventing the great studio tradition of British '40s cinema, which produced such films as Lean’s Dickens adaptations and Powell and Pressburger’s melodramas. More than this, it brings back allegory, fantasy, and phantasmagoria in such remarkable scenes as the killing in a hallucinated Whitechapel and the depiction of the House of Lords as a grisly chamber of horrors.
In revolting against naturalism, we should not forget that Medak (a refugee from Hungary) and Barnes were in good company. Roeg and Cammel’s Performance (1970) had plunged fearlessly into bravura fantasy (compare the “Memo to Turner” sequence with The Ruling Class' disconcerting use of musical numbers); while such otherwise very different filmmakers as Kubrick and Anderson had also forsaken realism in their two great “state of the nation” films of the same period: A Clockwork Orange (1971) and O Lucky Man! (1973). And Medak’s fellow countryman, Peter Sasdy, was leading Britain’s horror specialist Hammer into post-Freudian terrain with Hands of the Ripper (1971), another tribute to the enduring fascination with the Whitechapel murderer.
This fascination had undoubtedly been stoked by the previous decade’s new views on perversion and madness. In France, the Marquis de Sade had been culturally rehabilitated; while in Britain, under the influence of “existential” psychiatry, madness was increasingly seen as a social construct. R. D. Laing’s account of schizophrenia as essentially family-induced—a logical response to irrational pressures—was proving influential as a counter argument against advocates of ECT and drug treatment; and this is the backdrop to The Ruling Class' elaborate staging of Jack’s madness and its “cure,” through a surreal confrontation with his opposite, the “electric messiah.”
The Ruling Class is unashamedly theatrical, and it emerges from a particularly interesting period in English culture when theatre and cinema together were mining a rich vein of flamboyant self-analysis. Many stage works of this period cry out for filmic extension—in fact, Medak had just filmed a very different play that mingled fantasy and reality by a writer often bracketed with Barnes, Peter Nichols’ A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. But what makes The Ruling Class exceptional (and difficult for some) are its outrageous mixing of genres and its sheer ambition. Not only are there allusions to Shakespeare and Marlowe, but also to Wilde and Whitehall farce; to the gentility of Ealing Studios, with a plot that distantly evokes that other great black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, and to Hammer’s gore-fests. It is perhaps all very un-English, as William Mervyn’s cynical Sir Charles says of Dr. Herder, but only in terms of a very censored notion of Englishness. And among its starry cast of great character actors relishing their chance to go over the top with Peter O’Toole in what is surely his greatest role after Lawrence, there are also some remarkable purely filmic inventions. The image of Dr. Herder embracing the police cut-out silhouette of Lady Claire has an eerie pathos, and the chilling final scream that rings out over the brooding exterior of the Gurney mansion after Jack has stabbed his wife, flushed with his acclaim in the House of Lords, seems to unite the bloody poetry that Hammer aspired to with a real protest against Britain’s decaying aristocratic tradition.
This will never be a film for purists, but its ripeness and excess, its alert self-parody and breadth of cultural reference, mark it out as one to be cherished—and also appreciated, as an avatar of the renewed interest in high-voltage performance that runs through much distinctive cinema of the '80s and '90s, from Russell and Gilliam to Greenaway and Jarman. Above all, it’s a great, disturbing black comedy, and deservedly now a cult classic.
Ian Christie is the author and editor of several books on Powell and Pressburger (including Arrows of Desire), Eisenstein and Russian cinema, Martin Scorsese, and Terry Gilliam. He is a Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck College, University of London.