British Comedy Drama Musical

The Ruling Class

I stand outside myself, watching myself watching myself. I smile, I smile, I smile.

It takes courage to make a movie that defies all conventions and challenges the audience. Sometimes, indeed most of the time, the filmmakers fall on their faces. But every once in awhile a group of wildly innovative iconoclasts create something that has the right to be called unique, such as this week’s film recommendation: The Ruling Class.

The story begins with the solid, respectable, fiercely pro-Empire 13th Earl of Gurney (The always watchable Harry Andrews, holding nothing back) putting on a tutu and playing an auto-erotic asphyxiation game that goes awry. Enter greedy potential heirs, but the old coot has left his money to his manservant Tuck and his schizophrenic son Jack (Peter O’Toole). Jack currently believes himself to be the risen Christ, though after a dramatic series of events 2/3 of the way into the film he alters his self-identity in a profound fashion, with deadly results. The story barrels along with equally bizarre twists, punctuated by cast members bursting into song and doing Broadway-style dance numbers! It may sounds like an utter mess, but it’s a sublime piece of cinematic art.

As you would guess, there is a good deal of very black humor in the film. There are also many lighter-hearted laughs courtesy of Alastair Sim as a half-baked bishop (Honestly, he could evoke chuckles reading the phone book) and Arthur Lowe as the suddenly rich, alcohol-soaked Trotskyite butler Tuck, who stays on in his servant role while talking relentless smack to his “betters”.

The film is a triumph of three Peters. Peter Barnes wrote the original stage play and the screenplay, Peter Medak directed, and Peter O’Toole leads a champagne cast by giving an all out performance playing a volatile, complicated, exuberant character. Hats must also be doffed to Jack Hawkins, whose acting I have much praised in prior recommendations (e.g., The Long Arm, The Cruel Sea), and who is in the co-producer’s chair here (alongside Jules Buck).

This film did poor box office in 1972 and seemed to get no middling reviews: Critics loved it or hated it. Likewise, today, I can imagine some intelligent people of good will finding this film contrived, overlong, pretentious, and maybe even obnoxious. But in other modern viewers it will evoke wonder and admiration. If you are open to something completely different, please do give it a look, particularly if you can get your hands on the stunning print available from the Criterion Collection.

p.s. Harlaxton Manor, the magnificent pile where much of the film was shot, was once the site of my employer’s study abroad program.

Action/Adventure British Drama

The Cruel Sea

To compliment my recommendation of The Long Arm, let me endorse an even better film featuring the wonderful Jack Hawkins. In the high point of his career as a star (although he would go on to have a great career as a character actor in upmarket productions such as Lawrence of Arabia, Zulu, and Ben-Hur), Hawkins turns in a powerful, weighty performance as Captain Ericson in 1953’s The Cruel Sea. Scripted by Eric Ambler and based on the well-regarded Nicholas Monsarrat novel of the same name, this is a realistic, exciting and emotionally affecting portrayal of the British Royal Navy’s efforts to protect convoys from the predations of German U-Boats.

As the story begins in 1939, Ericson is called from the merchant marine to captain a corvette with a crewful of amateurs. His second lieutenant, Bennett, is a martinet of questionable ability (Stanley Baker, who really registers here in an early role for which he campaigned after being impressed with the character’s possibilities in the novel), and the junior officers below him were only recently working as barristers, journalists and in other professions that are of no value in naval combat. Ericson must train and lead them while making the terrible life or death decisions that wartime demands (If you want a short, powerful take on the nature and challenges of leadership, the events about 40 minutes into this movie are hard to beat). He is at least encouraged that when Bennett suddenly departs the ship, one of his young officers, Lockhart (Donald Sinden), starts to grow into the kind of officer he can count on.

Meanwhile, the crew have to protect convoys from U-boats, which increasingly gain the upper hand as the war wears on. In these scenes, documentary footage is smoothly blended with shots of the actors to give us the feel of being at sea as storms rage and the terrible possibility of torpedoes is ever-present. There are moments that will have you gripping the armrests and hoping along with the men that they will survive each crisis in which they find themselves.