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The Messiah and Murder: Spine #132, The Ruling Class (1972)
by MARK BRENDLE
Using a schizophrenic Earl who's cured of his messianic complex by choosing instead to believe that he's Jack the Ripper, Peter Medak's Buñuelesque The Ruling Class levies harsh social commentaries against established power hierarchies like the British aristocracy and the Christian church. Medak's adaptation of Peter Barnes' exceptional, darkly comic and surreal play can be read as a delicious skewering of class antagonism and a well-meaning but trite expose on the hypocrisy of power, but its true meaning lies in the necessary existence of the extremes of both The Christ and The Ripper.
Medak and Barnes implicate the structure of power in this schizophrenic split right away, introducing us to Jack's predecessor, Ralph, the 13th Earl of Gurney. After delivering a speech on the noble heritage of England, he returns to his bedroom to perform autoerotic asphyxiation in a tutu. The tutu might strike modern audiences as a cliché of crazy, but as Ralph prepares his ritual, one that he has obviously performed for some time, he speaks about how, for a judge, who has the power of life and death, all of life's other experiences fail to produce satisfaction. To experience a high close to that of sending men to the gallows, he must engage in bizarre and dangerous behavior. The ritual goes wrong; Ralph kicks over the stool and hangs himself, finally achieving full identification with the victims of his justice.
Ralph, and his butler Tuck, played magnificently by Arthur Lowe, carry out these obscene acts with the utmost propriety and courtesy — showing, even in scandalous circumstances, the manners of the upper class. As in Buñuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, as long as the pretense of civility and etiquette is maintained, all is permitted. This attitude persists with the rest of the Gurney family, who seem less distressed by Ralph's death or its circumstances than by maintaining the continuity of the Gurney name and greedily anticipating the terms of his will. When they find that Ralph left his estate to his schizophrenic son Jack, they devise a plan to produce an heir, exclude Jack from the family and have him committed. This heir of course would be under their care until he came of age, giving them de facto control of the Gurney estate.
Peter O'Toole gives a remarkable performance — or rather two performances — as Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, makes the transition from messiah to murderer, from prophet to profit. He enters the film as Jesus, dressed for the part, spouting such absurd trivialities as "love your neighbor" and "life is beautiful." The clash between Jesus' philosophy, presented as silly, naïve, almost buffoonish, and the properness of English aristocracy exposes the gap between the Christian identity of the wealthy elite and how they see Christ's actual teachings. There is no place for the flowerchild peace-and-love philosophy within the world of wealth, save as veneer. When directly confronted with the reality of the Christian message, the Gurneys respond to it as an intolerable intrusion, a tactless and insane denial of reality.
Glancing at the Tea Party today instantly dispels any illusion that such statements apply only to feudal leftovers of a monarchy from 40 years ago. The same people who cleave both to Christianity and Ayn Rand, an avowed atheist, conflate the self-applied "grace" of the former with the avarice and contempt of the latter. There is no room for the Sermon on the Mount, arguably Christ's ultimate lesson, in a rabidly anti-socialist movement. The meek can't be blesséd when their meekness is an outward sign of their valueless existence and their failure in the market.
Medak underscores the absurdity of the Christian message in modern society by having Jack break out into song and dance at random, delightful romps that belie a very serious message. The vitality of Jack-as-Jesus does not inspire the Gurneys to appreciate life, as life taken directly proves too alive, too traumatic for them. Only through the abstraction of life as hierarchical society, filtered through the constraints of etiquette and propriety, can they engage with reality without feeling vulnerable. They would not dare allow themselves to appear foolish, as Jack does.
What they fail to realize is that their very form of rigid manners makes them absurd and foolish. Anyone looking from the outside in can't help but see the ridiculous comedy of errors that is upper class life. The Gurneys fail to see this precisely because they are buried so deep within it. All the characters in The Ruling Class are clowns, clowns of ideology, trapped within their worldviews, unable to see themselves as they really are, unable to admit to a fundamental absurdity that cuts across class distinctions. For instance, Tuck, the butler, when not literally serving the elite, retires to his room to read Marx, Lenin and Mao. He sees himself as a dissident, soliloquizes on class struggle and revolution, yet enables the ruling class in their whimsy. Only after he receives a sum of £30,000 from Ralph Gurney's will does he begin to voice his dissatisfaction with power, his criticisms of the Gurneys and their obscene privilege. Yet he does not quit. His ideology, however, comes back to bite him in the ass.
The Ruling Class also addresses the subject of psychology, of counseling. The film was made in 1972 and as such may smack of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest in its treatment of the mentally ill. It brings home the notion that the line between sanity and insanity blurs and wavers upon close inspection. What ultimately makes one insane is an inability or refusal to accept the mainstream societal discourse as immutable fact, to play ball with one's environment. While Ralph Gurney, who enjoyed hanging himself in a ballet costume, was considered sane because he publicly toed the line of aristocracy, Jack is considered insane because his compassion, love and kindness fundamentally contradict the power ideology and pose a direct threat, coming from someone of noble blood.
Jack makes the transition between Jesus and Jack the Ripper through the intervention of a third party. The psychologist, Dr. Herder, led on by Jack's aunt, attempts a radical "cure" by confronting Jack with another patient of his who also believes he is God. The difference between the two, however, becomes obvious when the other patient, "The Electric Messiah," declares himself to be the God of the Old Testament. The doctor hopes that, if two men who believe themselves to be God confront one another, one must eventually break through his psychotic delusion.
But more than representing the bizarre and often cruel methods of institutionalized mental care, the confrontation between Jack-as-Jesus and the Electric Messiah brings to the fore an inherent antagonism of Christianity: the dichotomy of the God of Love and the God of Vengeance, the New Testament versus the Old Testament, and how to reconcile them. Of course, they can't be; their messages are fundamentally contradictory. In The Ruling Class, it is Jesus who falls, so as to move the narrative forward and change Jack into The Ripper. But in reality, both Gods do coexist, without reconciliation, as compartmentalized facets of the same entity.
Two separate discourses exist within modern society: the first, our conscious discourse, espouses what boils down to Christian values. Each human life has worth, everyone deserves freedom, the weak must be protected from the powerful, the planet must be preserved… the typically "liberal" discourse of conservation, equality and compassion. Another, subconscious, discourse exists: the discourse of power, of egoistic satisfaction, of might making right. All power is underwritten at a fundamental level by violence. This is the lesson of the Old Testament. God will smite those who go against his wishes.
America, for instance, guarantees its place as a land of freedom, justice and equality with its superior military technology. We, leading the world towards civilization, are one of the few countries to retain the death penalty, an issue brought to the fore recently by the execution of Troy Davis, among others, whose lives could not be spared even by the wholly democratic processes of petition and protest. As discussed in this article, our adherence to the formal logic of law, its infallibility as an abstract institution, overshadows any moral justice it was originally created to guarantee.
Beneath our civilized Jesus discourse lurks The Ripper, subconsciously dealing with our dirty work so our conscious pieties may continue unabated. The fact is not that we are Jack the Ripper, pretending to be Jesus, but that we are both Jack the Ripper and Jesus, worshipping both the vengeful God and the loving God, compartmentalizing our mutually exclusive ideologies into a workable whole, neither of which could gain much traction without the other underwriting it.
Once Jack's traumatic "conversion" takes place, the film takes on a decidedly darker tone. Repressing his Jesusness leaves a void for another personality to occupy, but why Jack the Ripper? He makes a fitting posterboy for modern elites. It was thought that he was an aristocrat himself, with knowledge of medicine and anatomy. As pointed out in the excellent commentary track, The Ripper confined his killings to London's poorest area, the East End, where conditions were so bad that George Bernard Shaw said The Ripper was the best thing to happen to it: he brought the inhuman poverty of that area into the public eye.
The ruling class holds the power of life and death over the lower classes. Whether by military service, police force, judicial action such as capital punishment, debilitating working conditions or even brazen murder, it is not enough to simply monopolize wealth; the ruling class must hold the very lives of their subjects victim to their caprice. Thus Jack gives full support to capital punishment and a society of fear in order to keep the lower classes in line, to his peers' unanimous applause. The film's last joke is that Jack the Ripper is a better leader than Christ. But again, Peter Barnes is no dummy; his analysis goes deeper than this ironic observation. What is darkly humorous gives way to a reality that shapes our world and governs our lives.
Jack finally commits his first murder, seeing himself in an East End alley, taking care of the human offal that dwell there. He finds opportunity to blame the death on none other than Tuck, the butler, who "always did it." Tuck's Marxism-Leninism comes back to haunt him. His refusal to accept capitalism and social hierarchy makes him the perfect scapegoat. One by one, Jack dismantles those around him, either literally or legally.
Medak ends the film on a particularly chilling note, using intercut scenes to render the House of Lords a barely concealed nightmare. It brings to mind Dante's Inferno, where in the lowest levels, the souls of some who still live have already descended to hell, so great their commitment to sin. These Lords are already horrors, desiccated shells of malice. Jack's final utterance gives voice to the pure subconscious discourse: rampant bloodlust, acquisitiveness and iniquity. Under the thin layer of conscious pieties rages this beast. Without the minimal restraints of its complementary ideology, it devours everything in insatiable madness.
The Ruling Class is a great film, funny, dense and rewatchable. Stellar performances come from all sides, notably Alastair Sim as the bishop, Arthur Lowe as Tuck the butler, and Nigel Green as the Electric Messiah. Despite being forty years old, the film has aged brilliantly. The satire of the piece still cuts to the core of our society. It’s important for viewers to transpose the particulars of English aristocracy onto the bigger picture and see how Barnes and Medak are indicting all ruling classes, not just those portrayed in the film. The commentary track features the three Peters, Medak, Barnes and O'Toole and is one of the best commentary tracks I've heard. A must see.