King Ralph


‘an amusing B movie with flashes of A-movie wit…’

After long nights of hard contemplation in my garret, I’ve finally decided to come out in support of King Ralph. This John Goodman vehicle from 1991 seems to be buried in a wave of critical obloquy, treated with distain for its portrait of a vulgar American showing the Brits a thing or two. You might have the same impression, even if you’ve never seen it. But they’re wrong, and that’s no reason for you to be; King Ralph is a funny, good-hearted romp, probably better appreciated from 2020 than at the time.

Sydney Pollack was one of the major Hollywood talents, a producer and director who made great thrillers like Three Days of the Condor, but could also stretch to strong comedy like Tootsie. King Ralph was a project that would have re-united him with Tootsie’s break-out star, Bill Murray, a star-vehicle that doubled-down on Murray’s sloth-like charm. But Murray didn’t want to star, and while remaining as producer, Pollack passed the duties on to Oscar-winner David S Ward, with a CV that includes The Sting, Major League and co-writing Sleepless in Seattle. Without Murray’s considerable wages to pay, Ward and Pollack spent wisely on the support; Peter O’Toole, John Hurt, Leslie Phillips, Richard Griffith, a roll-call of class British talent make up a distinguished supporting cast. Goodman, a rising character actor, gets a rare above-the-title starring role here, giving him the opportunity to show the comic talents, a well that the Coen brothers regularly returned to.

Perhaps it’s the premise that offends. As with the novel it’s loosely based on (Headlong by Emlyn Williams), King Ralph opens with the British Royal family wiped out in a fatal accident. The closest heir to the throne is a washed-up Vegas entertainer, Ralph Jones (Goodman), who is swiftly installed in Buckingham Palace to receive on-the-job training from Sir Cedric (O’Toole). But Lord Percival (John Hurt) believes that one transgression by Ralph will lead to an abdication, and give him the chance to claim the throne for the House of Stuart, so arranges a tabloid sting involving the shy girl Miranda (Camille Coduri) that Ralph is smitten with.

Pollack had a sophisticated view of comedy, and he’d probably have made quite a different film with Murray, and yet the elements here have weathered well; Americans marrying into royalty, conniving political forces bending the will of innocents for their own gain. It’s genuinely funny for Ralph to finish his list of diplomatic protocols by saying ‘enjoy your flight’; he feels constrained by the language and politeness of the palace as much as any humble flight-attendant who had to force a smile. Similarly, when offered the chance to raise his standards, he replies defiantly ‘I like my standards the way they are.’. Ralph defends his own personal cultural imperatives, even when forced to adopt those of others, and his tale of an everyman who outsmarts the forces that lurk in the dark shadows of Merrie England is likeable enough.

‘So…I’m getting hosed over here?’ is Ralph’s comment when he finds out that he’s been set up; in can-do fashion, Ralph soon outsmarts the crusty politicos and wins the day, singing a few good rock & roll songs along the way. This is an amusing B movie with flashes of A-movie wit; Goodman has since established himself as an American treasure, and he makes something loveable about King Ralph’s culture clash. So renounce your false idols, and let’s all hail King Ralph!


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  1. I’m glad to hear there’s something more sophisticated going on – I skipped this film years ago because it looked entirely familiar. I couldn’t imagine any humor I wasn’t already prepared for.

    • You can totally hear Murray’s voice in the dialogue, and believe me, a crude comedy in 1991 is pretty sophisticated by today’s standards! The silly opening doesn’t quite match the satirical tone achieved; it’s worth seeing IMHO.

  2. Ahhh what a guy too! I like his acting chops, whether it’s serious or comedic. Like in 10 Cloverfield Lane, he redefined “creepy”! And then in The Big Lebowski… He shows another side of him. King Ralph sounds like a good one though. Thanks for sharing!

    • Goodman is a far more respected and admired figure now than he was at the time; King Ralph makes him out to be an upstart, which seems odd given the career he’s had since then. He really was terrific in Cloverfield, that was a great performance for sure. Thanks for the comment!

  3. I gave this a miss at the time but may have another look thanks to your enthusiasm. What a picture it would have been though with Pollack and Murray. I noticed re Ward you avoided mention of the debacle that was Cannery Row, although he redeemed himself somewhat with Major League.

    • Ward certainly had a pathy career, although the high-points are considerable. But there’s some real highs and lows in this script; at it’s best, you can imagine an awards contender, there’s some sublime bits, and yet the final product was marketed, as one commenter said, as a ‘slob comedy’.

  4. I remember watching this when it came out on the television, edited version. I remember this hit my comedy button just right. I laughed my head off when the entire set of royals were lit up.

    I think I actually remember this movie because of Camille Coduri. Not because of her acting skills in the movie, but because of her later role in Dr Who. I saw her in Dr Who and thought “she looks familiar” and realized she’d been in King Ralph and so King Ralph stuck in my head. Retroactive association! Isn’t it weird? 😀

  5. Well…you probably already know what my response will be to this one. Just not a fan of the comedy genre…(sorry…) As much as I love John Goodman (he really is an amazing actor), this one just doesn’t appeal to me. As always though I definitely enjoyed reading your post for it! 😀

    • He is an amazing actor for sure, but at the time of release, he’d only made one film with the Coens, and people seem to have felt he was an unrefined sub for Bill Murray. Now we know of his greatness, this film is worth a revisit for coemdy fans. But it’s no Planes, Trains…!

      • Haha, no it isn’t. Hmm…now that I think of it, that would be a good movie to watch again for my Revisit series 😊
        It’s always interesting to see how in the beginning some actors aren’t yet in the public eye so to speak! How things can change!😊

  6. I like the way they got rid of the entire royal family. Otherwise I remember it as being kind of typical “slob comedy” of the time. Like your write-up, but I’m not sure if you’ve tempted me enough to give it another bite.

    • I get the ‘slob comedy’ angle, but if you do take another look, I think there’s a more sophisticated film in there than you might remember. Let’s agree; the close-ups of the royal family as they’re electrocuted are quite something to behold.

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