“The Ruling Class” captured something in 1972 that is just as important now as it was forty-five years ago. Far too often we mistake someone spouting fear and mistrust in the name of order, as someone thinking fairly and honestly about how to heal a nation.
Based on the 1968 Peter Barnes stage play, “The Ruling Class” film stars Peter O’Toole as Jack Arnold Alexander Tancred Gurney, an English earl and paranoid schizophrenic. It uses him to explore the nearsightedness of the powerful and the absurdity of trusting people who prize fear over love.
Jack becomes the 14 Earl of Gurney after his father suddenly dies while auto-erotically asphyxiating himself. Jack is the only heir, but has spent the last eight years in a mental hospital. He believes he is Jesus Christ and wants only to spread love and compassion, at first.
The film uses this version of Jack to pose the question: why is it so silly and unreasonable for someone to love openly and care for the well being of others?
Jack asks flowers if they’re getting enough water and blesses grasshoppers. He seems incapable of being harsh, cynical and unkind. His family sees him as a loony, incompatible with modern times. Jack’s case is extreme, but only so the film can highlight how ridiculous it is to view kindness and charity as fantastic practices from a bygone age.
Throughout the movie, Jack’s family tries to trick him out of his money and title. They set him up to marry his uncle’s mistress, making him think that she is actually divine, the ideal Lady of the Camellias he’s been looking for.
While this is going on, Jack’s psychiatrist, Dr. Herder (Michael Bryant), tries to cure him before anyone can take his title. Dr. Herder believes that once Jack remembers his name, he will be on his way to complete recovery. But every time Dr. Herder tries to get Jack to see who he should be, Jack ends up spitting, sputtering and shuddering like an engine with rusty motor mounts.
These attempts don’t stop and Jack doesn’t grow, but he does change.
“The Ruling Class” could easily be just a high-born caper with themes of anti-war, pro-peace and love trumping hate. And while it believes in the power of love and virtue in gentility, the film doesn’t forsake these ideas as the only important things it has to say. It isn’t simply about Jack showing cynics and the English upper crust how love will lead to all peoples’ happiness. No. The film twists Jack into something far worse than an apathetic aristocrat.
You see, Jack does remember his name partway through the movie, or at least that his first name is Jack. After Dr. Herder “cures” him, Jack no longer believes he is the good shepherd nor the prince of peace, but Jack the Ripper. Vengeance and spite are in his heart and his family finally believes he is normal. They are blind to see the monster he has become.
Jack murders, locks subordinates in jail and he gets away with it simply because of his socioeconomic position.
This is the brilliance of the film. It isn’t a journey to bring others into the light of empathy and understanding. But the rise of a hateful, fragile man, manipulated into to becoming someone he’s not. He convinces not just his family, but his country, that his dogma of tough love and intolerance is the way to make England’s green and pleasant shores as magnificent as they once were.
Growing up in the U.S., my history teachers said that if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it. ‘The Ruling Class” may be fiction, but nonetheless teaches something important. Fairness, kindness and gentleness are too easily branded as naïve and to believe in them unashamedly is to be unrealistic. To be pragmatic and unkind is labeled honest.
But at twenty-two, more often than not in my life this belief has been used to effect minimal change or still worse, regression. And like Jack, it’s allowed poisonous people lie their way into power. And rather than make a nation great for the people, it makes a nation great for the ruling class.