King Ralph (1991)


USA/UK. 1991.


Director/Screenplay – David S. Ward, Based on the Novel Headlong by Emlyn Williams, Producer – Jack Brodsky, Photography – Kenneth McMillan, Music – James Newton Howard, Special Effects Supervisor – John Morris, Makeup – Peter Robb-King, Production Design – Simon Holland. Production Company – Universal/Mirage/Ibro


John Goodman (Ralph Jones), Peter O’Toole (Cedric Willingham), Camille Coduri (Miranda Greene), John Hurt (Lord Percival Graves), Richard Griffiths (Duncan Phipps), Leslie Phillips (Gordon Halliwell), James Villiers (Geoffrey Hale), Joely Richardson (Princess Anna), Rudolph Walker (King Mulambon), Julian Glover (King Gustav)


The British Royal Family are all brought together for a portrait – only for the photographer’s equipment to short circuit and electrocute all of them. A massive search is begun for an heir to the throne. One is finally located in Las Vegas nightclub singer Ralph Jones – the Duke of Warren had an affair with Ralph’s grandmother, making Ralph an illegitimate heir, nevertheless the king. Once in England however, the unsophisticated Ralph has some difficulty in adjusting to the stately ways required of a King of England. Meanwhile, Lord Perceval Graves, a descendant along the Stuart line, wants the throne and determines to do all he can to embarrass Ralph and force him out.

King Ralph is arguably a science-fiction film – in the same sense that films like Seven Days in May (1964) and The Man (1972) and tv series such as A Very British Coup (1987) and To Play the King (1995) are science-fiction – they are speculative ‘What If?’ questions about political scenarios. Certainly, King Ralph is such a scenario, and if there were any doubts, surely the absurd improbability of the film’s scenario – a slobbish Las Vegas nightclub singer ascending to the British throne – must classify it as sheer fantasy.

The film is the British, in a very American way, poking fun at themselves and their Royal sacred cows. The material is weak. The plot seems to have been constructed from a Comedy Writing 101 class formula – there is the requisite villain, the pure-hearted girl, the easygoing hero’s struggle between duty and himself, ample room allowed for much slapstick tomfoolery and a colossal cop-out ending – the even more improbable twist that manservant Peter O’Toole is an heir too.

The flatness of the material is however enlivened though by John Goodman, one of the finest and most versatile comic stars in contemporary American cinema. The film’s best moments involve Goodman in an amusing series of vignettes poking fun at Royal and upper-class mores – playing cricket like it was a game of baseball, throwing frisbees with the Royal corgis, accidentally nicking ears during a knighting, getting china cups stuck on his finger while learning the art of tea-drinking and trying to make sense of terms like ‘spotted dick’. There is an amusing series of lines based on a potential misinterpretation of ‘fox hunting’: “Do you do a bit of fox hunting?” “Yes, I used to go out to the clubs every weekend.” However, there is not much more to the film than that.

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