• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, October 19, 2015

    The Ruling Class (1972)

    Five years ago I started watching the 1972 Peter O'Toole vehicle The Ruling Class - I even wrote a blog post on it - but for some reason I had never got around to finishing watching it until last week.

    O'Toole stars as the 14th Earl of Gurney, a mad aristocrat who believes himself to be Jesus Christ. Such a starting point might invite comparisons with Carl Theodore Dreyer's Ordet, but there the similarities end. Dreyer's film is all staunchly restrained asceticism - a deeply felt exploration of spirituality and the tension between the blessings and curses of pursuing the divine. In contrast The Ruling Class is a bawdy, yet sharply satirical incision into the British class system. O'Toole's Gurney may spout more words from the Bible than Ordet's Johannes, but they don't carry the same philosophical weight. Johannes is haunted and seemingly deluded. O'Toole is simply bonkers.

    Which isn't to say that the words from the Bible included in the film are irrelevant. Certainly there is more to their inclusion than a comparison between a lord and theLord. One the one hand to create a credible portrait of insanity the script is peppered with references to saints and quotes from well-known prayers, but the biblical quotes tend to coalesce around the theme of love, both for God but also for one another - "Love one another as I love you". Furthermore, and perhaps more worryingly from his family's point of view, is the value he place on ordinary people. "I am he that liveth, and behold, I am alive for everyone." All of which plays a pivotal role in the script's intended target - the British class system.

    [SPOILERS] Guerney starts the film clearly and widely understood to be mad, yet his message is that of love. When he is seemingly cured in the middle part of the film he is restored to office, accepted as having returned to normal and regains his position in society. Yet it becomes apparent that Guerney is no more sane now than he ever was. Indeed, now he views himself as Jack the Ripper (a delusion which escapes attention due to the shared first name) and begins a murderous plot to take revenge on all those who plotted against him and plant himself in a position of influence within the second chamber of the government - the House of Lords.[END SPOILERS]

    Perhaps the film's most telling line, then, is this: "Behaviour which would be considered insanity in a tradesman is looked upon as mild eccentricity in a lord. Few batter an eyelid when, despite his previous insanity, Guerney imagines himself as slayer of working class women and rants about the man in the street, but his ideas about love and the value of ordinary people is what really causes a flutter.

    Of course O'Toole rather hams things up and enjoys getting his teeth into some great lines such as "For what I am about to receive, may I make myself truly thankful" and "Last time I preached the Word in holy Galilee, I spoke in parables. Mistake! Now I must speak plain. God is love." However, as might be expected, some of the best lines are in response to how Guerney began to believe he is God. "How do you know you're God?" his ant asks him. "Simple" comes the answer "when I pray to Him, I find I'm talking to myself."

    Such questions also bring one of the film's other key themes to the surface - a desire to contrast between the divine with the mundane/profane. At one point Guerney treats his family to a dramatic description of his calling, replete with thunderclaps and a bright light as "red as fire" but when he's asked for the location of this great visitation his deadpan response is "East Acton, outside the public urinal." Whilst there's little suggestion in the film that O'Toole is anything other than deluded, he does mix spiritual language with the ordinary and everyday. Perhaps the deluded Christ of the 14th Earl of Guerney is summed up best by another statement from his own lips:
    My heart rises with the sun. I'm purged of doubts and negative innuendos. Today I want to bless everything. Bless the crawfish with it's scuttling walk. Bless the trout, pilchard and periwinkle. Bless Ted Smoothey of 22 East Hackney Road. Bless the mealy redpole, the black-gloved wallaby and W.C. Fields, who is dead but lives on. Bless the snotty-nosed giraffe. Bless the buffalo. Bless the Society of Women Engineers. Bless the pygmy hippy. Bless the mighty cockroach.


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