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Has The Ruling Class maintained its status as a cult film?

Audrey Kupferberg pointing out some of her favorite Hollywood movie posters in her home in 2021.
Jackie Orchard

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of an oddball film called The Ruling Class. Peter O’Toole stars in this colorful feature which smashes any genre label. Upon its release in the U.S. in 1972, with several minutes cut for who knows what reason, critics had mixed reactions. The film didn’t make a lot of money. But a group of cinephiles latched on to it, and The Ruling Class became a cult film. By the way, today those missing minutes are restored.

The plot begins with the accidental death of the 13th Earl of Gurney. In 1972, it was shocking to see a character killed during a solo sex act gone awry. The Earl enjoys occasionally hanging himself from a silk noose while wearing military regalia and a woman’s ballet tutu. One evening he accidentally kicks over the protective ladder, and he hops the twig! Who will he have named as his heir? Who will inherit the estate and the peerage?

Unfortunately for those posh bloodsuckers who live off the estate, the 14th Earl of Gurney is the 13th Earl’s son, a raving nutter who has lived in an asylum for the past eight years and who believes he is Jesus Christ. Enter Peter O’Toole, a paranoid schizophrenic in a flowing strawberry blonde wig and monk’s robes.

The story evolves in a unique way. One might say in an avant-garde way. Many scenes of drama are suddenly interrupted by the actors springing into song and dance. There are British music hall numbers, Tin Pan Alley songs, touches of opera and touches of burlesque.

The storyline of The Ruling Class has one intention -- to spoof the high born society of Britain. The film is based on a play by satirist Peter Barnes, a successful stage work with structure that went against naturalism. When it was made into a film, Peter Medak was named to direct. Medak’s prolific career has been mainly in television, with an occasional foray into feature filmmaking.

While the story contains strong social and political messaging, the unusual manner in which The Ruling Class is constructed may be the main reason some film viewers in the 1970s took it to their bosoms and deemed it a cult favorite. At fifty, is The Ruling Class still a cult film? Certainly it’s screwball blending of drama, comedy, and song and dance makes it a rarity.

However, the content hasn’t remained as eye-popping as it seemed to viewers in 1972. Much of the detail is there to shock. O’Toole hangs from a huge cross at the estate, as though crucified. A fellow patient at the asylum who also thinks he is god, “The High Voltage Messiah,” performs at the estate and has electricity visibly extending from his hands, sending electroshock therapy into the 14th Earl’s body and transforming him into another, even more horrific, personality.

The Ruling Class has plenty of entertainment to offer during its 2 ½ hour duration. Alongside O’Toole are several of Britain’s fine character actors of the mid-Twentieth Century, Alastair Sim, Arthur Lowe, and Harry Andrews among others. But I think the edge is gone. Over the past fifty years, audiences have seen even more outrageous incidents on screen. Looking back at O’Toole’s career, his portrayal of Lawrence of Arabia in 1962 is more astonishing, with its subtle and not-so-subtle hints at homosexuality and sexual proclivities, … as is his performance as Eli Cross in The Stunt Man from 1980, an extraordinarily clever film for any time period. It is my prediction that these two films will enjoy more lengthy terms as cult classics.

Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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