Peter Barnes' vicious satire of the English class system and Catholic church began as a play in the 60s, and spent several years in development when Peter O'Toole bought the rights for his company, Keep Films. In 1971, O'Toole and director Peter Medak filmed their dream project, with a virtual who's who of English stage actors. Though United Artists were the original distributors, “The Ruling Class'” length proved to be a major problem for the company. Avco Embassy ultimately released the film, and without the intended intermission break, the two and a half hour film went on to become a cult classic.
Criterion's DVD presents the film with a very clean transfer, though a few darker sequences - an attic soliloquy and the film's final music number - contain visible grain that's been smoothened a little with some digital noise reduction. The mono soundtrack contains obvious distortion during a few of the more clamorous verbal matches, and some of the musical numbers are similarly affected, though overall the soundtrack mix is well-balanced.
The commentary track features the 3 Peters: director Medak, star O'Toole, and writer Barnes. Intercut to form a smooth, narrative flow, Medak recalls the project's genesis and production history, while Barnes provides animated introspection on his writing style, and how “The Ruling Class” deeply reflects his views on the English class system, the Church, and upper class politics. O'Toole's voice, on the other hand, immediately evokes a sense of joy, and he doesn't disappoint us with his own take on the film's production history, including a delightful explanation of ‘the sitting game.'
Director Medak's own 16mm silent home movies offer some interesting behind the scenes shots of key sequences (particularly the finale), though the lack of sound drastically slows down the pacing, and much of the footage becomes very repetitive. Still, through osmosis we get a sense of the kind of production it was and a peek behind-the-scenes that we otherwise wouldn't see.
Medak's stills are a mix of production and a few personal shots, and the lengthy gallery ends with a few amusing snapshots in Cannes, with the film's key stars, and co-producer Jack Hawkins.
The supplied trailer, more of a teaser, reveals how the distributor had no idea how to market the film, though word of mouth and positive reviews helped the film enjoy a year run in England.
© 2001 Mark R. Hasan