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'King Ralph' Is the Film That Taught Me the True Depths of Human Cruelty

John Goodman's screwball comedy is pure fucking evil.

by Gavin Haynes
23 September 2014, 6:00am

Some people will try and tell you that Hostel III is the most wantonly stomach-churning film ever made. Movie nerds might point to Driller Killer as a film that plays particularly fast and loose with mortality. More cerebral types might dig up some or other holocaust film that's sadder than Jerry Sadowitz holding a SAD lamp over a Mike Leigh housewife with seasonal affective disorder. But really, they're all wrong. If we're talking in terms of sheer-putrid moral turpitude, the winner is always going to be King Ralph. It makes Triumph of the Will seem like Patch Adams dancing the Macarena in Teletubbyland. It's a colostomy bag exploding on the windshield of civilisation. And the most damning thing about it? That no one has ever seemed to notice.

King Ralph is its own Stanford Prison Experiment. It taught me at a young age that your auntie, your mum, your local priest – anyone, basically – can be converted into Belsen guards dishing out shower-time to an out-group who have been de-personed. And that society will simply turn a blind eye to whatever these people do if the facts fit the dominant narrative.

If I were to tell you that I was opening my screwball comedy with footage from the human atrocity exhibition that was the Hither Green train derailment: the panic, the anguished gasps turning to agonised groans, the grown men shitting themselves in fear as they see their girlfriends crushed into Marmite, well, you'd probably feel like I was making a mistake, wouldn't you? You might tell me: "Think again, Gav. The Hither Green train derailment is just not good comic fodder. Yes, Robin Gibb survived and he went on to light up our lives with an array of funky disco hits. But really, the people of London will not thank you for this." 

Well, nobody told that to the guy who wrote King Ralph.

The trailer for "King Ralph"

The storyline in brief: Ralph's great-great-great-granddaddy supposedly fucked a cocktail waitress on a Royal Tour of Boston in 1898, leaving him as the sole heir to the throne after the entire Britsh Royal Family, about a hundred of them, are brutally killed. For some reason, the people who made King Ralph decided that they must be sacrificed before John Goodman can become a buffoonish fish out of water. Which is why the film opens with them lining up on a metal balcony for a family photo. A close-up makes it clear that the Royal photographer has left one of the cables for his lights in a puddle of water. They are all about to be electrified to death the moment he closes the shutter. He closes the shutter. Whoopsie.

Their death-agonies are captured forever in a full-colour photograph that is the final held close-up of King Ralph's opening death-montage. This is a bit like when Ed Gein kept the vaginas of his victims in a box on his bedside dresser. It's a bit like when Ted Bundy would walk down the street, with the head of a woman he'd killed in a tote bag. The gruesome snuff image swirls onto our screen, followed in turn by spinning newspaper headlines.

Royal Family Dead!!!
Cut to the UK Enquirer:

God Save The King (Funeral Today, Set The VCR)!!!!
Cut to The British Post:

Search On For Heir (Could He Be John Goodman, Cos That Would Be Well Funny)!!!!!
Cut to The London England News Chronicle:

Turns Out It's John Goodman!!!!!!!!
Because it is John Goodman.

Yes, 1991 was long before the man from Roseanne could just swan into the latest Coen brothers, do a brilliantly gruesome character-acting mini-masterpiece, beat his walking stick against the backs of carseats and collect another Oscar. Back then, the guy had to work night'n'day to earn his comic crust, drenching himself in humiliating fatso-LOLs. Which, in King Ralph, means him clocking-on to play a slobby travelling salesman and boogie-woogie piano player who will soon install a bowling alley in Buckingham Palace, embarrass himself by being overfamiliar with the Finnish King, and try to drink the finger-bowl after his langoustines.

In the film, there isn't a single moment where King Ralph deigns it worthy to consider the mingled olfactory cortege of carbonised flesh, piss and formaldehyde resting in the Windsor mortuary the day after the accident. He never delivers a stirring monologue in which he envisions vividly the corpses overflowing from a mobile refrigeration unit. He does not talk of the soft toys placed on the coffins of Royal children – a favourite Ninja Turtle here, a Winnie The Pooh blankie carted endlessly round the house there, as they are, one by one, lowered forever into the earth, John Taverner ringing out crystalline as the sods are softly relaid before a grieving nation.

When Ralph is wearing his crown in the bath and he drops it, there is no haunted look in his eyes that suggests he has recently been in contact with a police officer who had to match a hundred Royal dental records to grimacing charred cinder-jaws. Indeed, nothing about his demeanour suggests he has recently had a coroner describe what happens to a human ribcage when 10,000 volts contract your muscles so sharply they tear limb from limb. Emotionally, Ralph and his courtiers display all the grief of bedposts. "One death is a tragedy. A thousand are a statistic," said Stalin. That seems to be the cast of King Ralph's view, too.

Big Momma's House 2 has its flaws, sure. But whatever they are, it doesn't begin with footage of dead teenage partygoers being fished out of the Thames after the Marchioness Ferry Disaster. This is, I feel, a sensible artistic decision. Yet King Ralph shows no such instincts. Instead, after letting the streets run red with blood, it mainly focuses on Goodman's attempts to woo a young blonde. Which is striking a blow for the rights of fat men everywhere to bang premium totty, but that is about all the social conscience it displays.

Eventually, when it looks like he may get to put his spotted dick in her bread 'n butter pudding, Ralph gives up the throne. He realises King-ing is not for him – it's love that matters. And that his butler Cedric – a role Peter O'Toole's obituaries unfairly omitted while carping on endlessly about Lawrence Of Arabia – has a dirty secret. He's actually the A1 genuine most-related throne-holder. He's just been trying to avoid taking on the mantle because he's a bit shy about being a King. In other words, he's the ideal King – he has Great British reserve in spades. Plus: he's Peter O'-fucking-Toole.

King Ralph upends your moral instincts, and does it with such cheerily unblinking certainty of its own rightness that it pierces all our carefully-assembled social niceties, all of those subtle-sinister good-mannered affirmations that lead us to believe we could never take up arms, that we could never eat our neighbour's dog, that Bosnia "wouldn't happen here", that Rwanda was a one-off. John Gray's Straw Dogs could not have painted a bleaker picture of the prospects for human progress.

Here, the Americans who made King Ralph delivers a bop on the nose to the very idea of The Enlightenment, and a crowbar to the jaw for the so-called "special-relationship". America, it says, does not see you leetle UK peoples as worthy of the fullest sense of a "right to life". British deaths are not worth mourning. There is, philosophically, no leap to be made between Rambo going after row after row of Vietnamese with a bazooka like he's playing human Space Invaders, and a film that dispenses with everyone unfortunate enough to be called "Windsor" as if they were wheat in a thresher. 

The implications are profound. We in Britain remain happy to kill the shit out of brown men in the tribal areas of Pakistan down the end of a Harrier's night-sight. But we haven't yet woken up to the corollary of that. The fact that we too are about a 30 percent difference in GDP away from being the sorts of stick figures you see in black 'n white down a US drone camera, seconds from missile-strike.

And what will happen when America finally unloads its washing machines of death upon us? John Goodman bouncing his arse around at the funeral, banging out "Good Golly, Miss Molly".


More from this series:

'Anatomy of Hell' Was the Film That Made Me Fear My Own Vagina

'Vanishing Point' Was the Film That Made Me Wanna Go Out in a Blaze of Glory

'Powaqqatsi' Is the Film That Made Me Want to Soundtrack Movies

gavin haynes
John Goodman
royal family
King Ralph
peter o'toole