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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 »


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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:

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English | French | Italian | German | Latin

Release Date:

15 September 1972 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

A Classe Dominante See more »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Keep Films See more »
Show more on IMDbPro »

Technical Specs


Sound Mix:




Aspect Ratio:

1.78 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Peter O'Toole and Coral Browne have previously appeared together in The Night of the Generals (1967). See more »


The technique of the string players in the orchestra, particularly their bowing, at the wedding reception (c.71 minutes) bears absolutely no relation to the soundtrack. 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 Doctor Faustus (1967) See more »


The Varsity Drag
Written by Buddy G. DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson
Sung by Peter O'Toole, Kay Walsh, Patsy Byrne and Arthur Lowe
See more »

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User Reviews

Two Movies With The Running Length Of Three
29 December 2009 | by aimless-46See all my reviews

Back in 2001, The Criterion Collection saw fit to add "The Ruling Class" (1972) to their catalog; which means there is now a good print available in the correct aspect ratio, one that includes the entire original release running time of 154 minutes. It also means that "The Ruling Class" is now regarded in film circles as a "significant" movie. Of course almost any film student will tell you that "significant" is not necessarily synonymous with entertaining, critically acclaimed, or well-made.

So if you are considering a purchase or have just had a confused post-purchase viewing experience the following discussion may prove useful. This is a British film, one I originally watched on the BBC a few months after its release. It was neither a critical success (mixed reviews) nor a box office sensation and hitting the BBC so soon after a theatrical release back then was not much different from going direct-to-video today.

It was a counter-culture film, and much of my original enjoyment came from the obvious tweaking of certain cultural and political institutions. Much of this stuff has lost its power and appeal over the years.

It has a lot of expressionistic and allegorical elements; this sort of stuff was (and is) relatively rare in an English language film and probably accounts for much of the current cult status of the film. The black comedy aspect of these elements has held up very well and you will understand the film better and enjoy it more if you don't take it literally.

Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O'Toole), has recently inherited the family title and a place in the House of Lords of the British Parliament. The story actually begins with a cheerfully provocative black comedy sequence as his father, the 13th Earl (Harry Andrews), accidentally hangs himself while performing what is apparently a long-standing self-pleasuring ritual.

Jack believes himself Jesus Christ and his family believes that they can get their hands on the estate once he produces an heir. Their idea being to have him committed and then become guardians of the child. Carolyn Seymour plays his uncle's mistress who is brought in to marry Jack. Her character throws a wrench in the works by falling in love with her new husband. Other than Jack, Seymour's character is the only one that undergoes any real change during the course of the film and she sells this transformation quite nicely while also providing one of the best striptease sequences you are likely to stumble across in a mainstream movie.

As already noted the running length is 154 minutes, that's about the length of two movies and if the film were being produced today I suspect that it would be done as two separate films. Indeed it is really two stories with each having an entirely different tone. About midway through the film, the Jesus version of the 14th Earl is replaced by a Jack the Ripper version. In the process a farcical and relatively light-hearted black comedy is instantly transformed into a much darker story. Black comedy gives way to dark fantasy and hallucinations as the wheels fall off the story until a visually stunning ending.

The 1972 theme being essentially that being forced to conform to the ritualistic practices of upper class British society produces a monster. That not being able to "do your own thing" unleashes a monster on the world. Unfortunately the basic cause and effect of this whole process is glossed over and one is left wondering why the film you have been watching has been replaced with something entirely different and far less entertaining.

O'Toole underplays his two characters, don't expect a lot of Gary Oldham type excess. Jesus is more a mild narcissist than a booming holy roller. Jack (the Ripper) is much better mannered but obviously smoldering beneath his polite exterior.

The laughs mostly come from the discomfort of Jack's family and from Alastair Sim's apoplectic bishop and Authur Lowe's collectivist butler who abuses the family with a "Benson" type frankness.

There are two great musical sequences, a hunt club performance of "Dem Bones" (a homage to "The Prisoner") and the climatic scene in the House of Lords (a surreal montage of decay to the music of "Pomp and Circumstances" and "Onward, Christian Soldiers").

Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.

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