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The Ruling Class (1972)

A member of the House of Lords dies, leaving his estate to his son. Unfortunately, his son thinks he is Jesus Christ. The other, somewhat more respectable, members of their family plot to steal the estate from him. Murder and mayhem ensue.


Peter Medak


Peter Barnes (screenplay), Peter Barnes (play)
Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 2 wins & 3 nominations. See more awards »




Cast overview, first billed only:
Hugh Owens Hugh Owens ... Toastmaster
Harry Andrews ... 13th Earl of Gurney
Arthur Lowe ... Tucker
William Mervyn William Mervyn ... Sir Charles
Coral Browne ... Lady Claire
James Villiers ... Dinsdale
Alastair Sim ... Bishop Lampton
Hugh Burden ... Matthew Peake
Peter O'Toole ... Jack 14th Earl of Gurney
Michael Bryant ... Dr. Herder
Henry Woolf ... Inmate
Griffith Davies Griffith Davies ... Inmate
Oliver MacGreevy Oliver MacGreevy ... Inmate (as Oliver McGreevy)
Kay Walsh ... Mrs. Piggott-Jones
Patsy Byrne Patsy Byrne ... Mrs. Treadwell


A member of the House of Lords dies in a shockingly silly way, leaving his estate to his son. Unfortunately, his son is insane: he thinks he is Jesus Christ. The other somewhat-more respectable members of their family plot to steal the estate from him. Murder and mayhem ensues. Written by Mark Logan <marklo@west.sun.com>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


How do you know you're... God? Simple when I pray to Him I find I'm talking to myself.


Comedy | Drama | Musical


PG | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

View content advisory »

Did You Know?


Produced by Jack Hawkins, who doesn't appear in the film. See more »


Jack and Truscott sit after singing, and their positions change between shots. See more »


[first lines]
Toastmaster: My Lords. Gentlemen. Pray silence for Ralph Douglas Christopher Alexander Gurney, the thirteenth Earl of Gurney.
13th Earl of Gurney: The aim of the Society of Saint George is to keep Gurney a memory of England. We were once the rulers of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Ruled not by superior force or skill, but by sheer presence.
See more »

Alternate Versions

The film was trimmed to 148 minutes for US release, and was later cut to 141 minutes in order to fit on one videocassette (the longest available at the time). The Criterion DVD contains the original 154 min. version of the film. See more »


References The Prisoner (1967) See more »


from "Xerxes"
Written by George Frideric Handel
Arranged by John Cameron
See more »

User Reviews

Low, hard, dark, nasty - and brilliant!
8 January 2005 | by SamanfurSee all my reviews

You couldn't make this film today. They wouldn't let you.

And by "they" I don't only mean what remains of the film's archetypes, but their 21st century successors: the politicians, broadcasters, pundits and columnists; the do-gooders, moral guardians and the political correctness lobby.

Our new alleged betters, who believe that the country would be so much better if they were the only ones running it, and who're convinced that what the world really needs is a steady diet of anodyne intellectual rice pudding; otherwise, they'd be either be risking (shock and horror!) offending someone or actually making people think about the situation they're in - at the risk of upsetting their own privileged positions.

Before I saw it, I'd never even heard of it or the original stage play. But now more's the pity that I'll probably never see both.

When the first five minutes of anything features an unfortunate death involving a cavalry sabre and a tutu, it's a reliable indicator that snooks may be cocked in any given direction, and the following film doesn't disappoint.

No "establishment" institution is left unsullied by the cast's sardonic touch – and the production is all the better for it. Any punches being pulled would've instantly rang hollow and seemed false in a production with this much raw, snarling energy.

This wasn't comfortable viewing and I don't think it was meant to be. I don't agree with the majority of views expressed in the film and I don't think I was meant to.

It's like peeping into Bedlam and wondering what the inmates will do next – an image made all the more powerful by the liminal sense of time used to ram the mothballed banality home. There're only a few scenes when you can remind yourself that this film is set in its own time, rather than any period over the last few hundred years.

But, ye gods, it was some of the most compelling viewing I've ever seen. I can't vouch for whether or not it was a perverse sense of schardenfruede to peep at the seedier underbelly of my own nation's largely sacrosanct and untouchable upper classes, or just an urge to see how far the film would go before it reached its grimly inevitable, tragic conclusion; but once it started, I couldn't even bear to hit the pause button.

O'Toole's performance is nothing short of mesmerising and magnetic, evolving Jack's character and treading a fine line between sympathy and revulsion in the emotions he provokes.

My first thought upon seeing some of the monologues involved in Jack's role was that if this man didn't get an Oscar nomination for this role, he should've done – so it's a relief to've found out that he did, and more's the pity that he didn't get the win he deserved. The emotional range and energy involved owns the screen in every scene he's in.

The cast are almost all recognisable, mesh well and visibly give their all, even if any fan of 'Blackadder II' may have difficulty not picturing Patsy Byrne in a cow costume.

Arthur Lowe's bolshie manservant provides many of the more blatant, straightforward comic moments as his masters' opposite extreme, but still comes across as a three-dimensional, dramatic and even unashamedly dark character – the latter being an undertone that even the cleanest of sight gags can't fully temper.

Almost all of the principle cast members – and quite a few of the minors and extras – can also hold a note and get the opportunity, in the biting musical numbers. Or at least, if they're dubbed, then the dubbing team deserve additional praise for pulling off the illusion so smoothly.

The songs vary between classic and contemporary. The likes of opera and music hall mingle to convey the cavalier attitude of the characters to often murky or distasteful subject matter, adding a further layer of perky surrealism.

And yet none of this mixture of genres, mise en scene, times, places and imagery seems overly forced.

This sort of alchemy of genres and use of the cinema as a platform for outspoken statements used to be something that really could attract the cream of the acting profession, rather than have to be left to unknowns and independent production teams because no studio or "star" would dare to risk the bad publicity and drop in revenue and/or credibility.

When I initially began attempting to write a summary of this film, I felt that there was no way that I could possibly cram everything that I feel about this film into a well-ordered 1,000 words. And I still believe it. I'm normally capable of far more ordered reviews than this, but I just don't know how to put everything I should be foregrounding into any sort of prioritised order without unjustly diminishing some of it.

I could carry on explaining, but I doubt that I could do this film justice in the space allowed.

See it, and find out for yourself.

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Release Date:

15 September 1972 (USA) See more »

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The Ruling Class See more »

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1.85 : 1
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