Too long, too willfully oddball, too full of obvious critiques of the British upper crust, Peter Medak's 1972 film The Ruling Class is still fairly enjoyable as a showcase for Peter O'Toole. As Jack Gurney, the heir to an earldom, he completely throws himself into the role of a man gone completely mad; convinced he's God, he sleeps on a crucifix, wears his hair at a Christlike length, and make loud and unhinged proclamations about the state of the universe. Jack's mental state troubles his uncle, Sir Charles Gurney (William Mervyn), but only because he's angry that the previous earl left him out of the will, and he plots to have Jack cured, or at least to hook him up with his mistress, Grace (Carolyn Seymour), in the hopes of producing a sane heir.
To watch O'Toole in the first half is to watch a great actor exploit every tool he's got -- he declaims, weeps, sings, dances, plays the fool, romances, and charms with authority. And Peter Barnes's script, based on his play, gives Jack-as-Christ some great lines; refusing Grace's kiss in the manor garden, he says, "The last time I was kissed in a garden it turned out rather awkward." But once Jack's allegedly cured and transforms into a proper gentleman at the film's midpoint, O'Toole becomes leaden and the film itself goes a bit potty; borrowing a host of quick-cutting way-out tricks of late-'60s cinema, Medak persistently tinkers with the speed, tone, and shape of the movie, playing up murders for laughs, going for shocks, and turning Jack into a baffling figure. That's part of the point -- Medak wants to expose the madness that lies within everybody who occupies England's ruling class. But by the time the obnoxious closing sequences come around, you're left feeling more bludgeoned by that notion than enlightened or entertained.