Dir. Michael Hoffman. Starring Kevin Kline, Emile Hirsch, Steven Culp
The weather is a lie in The Emperor’s Club, set at a boys’ school (and later at a company retreat in Long Island) where the sun always shines and the sky never ever hints at rain. There’s a snowball fight for about three seconds during a montage, and other than that the pathetic fallacy reigns. Nothing could go wrong at St. Benedict’s, where rich boys get a typical boarding school education and never have to deal with much worse than a stern talking to. Its walking symbol is a teacher specializing in Greek and especially Roman history who loves to row every morning and is content to live a presumably celibate life on the grounds of the school itself. He is as wholesome as it gets, the kind of person who seems to live in the classroom. You could no more imagine him at the supermarket than you could at a brothel. As is appropriate for a teacher of ancient history, he is a victim of hamartia; he falls short of the standard and sets off a chain of events which bring trouble to people beyond himself.
The inevitable mental comparison to Dead Poets Society comes, but then passes. The Emperor’s Club is a much better movie than Dead Poets and much more interesting, largely evading the fizzy pop sentimentality that leaches its way throughout its older cousin. (Not to get so off track, but Dead Poets Society is to education what Patch Adams is to medicine, and look how well that turned out.) The Emperor’s Club looks for darkness and seediness not in the predictable hollows of the New England aristocracy – the horror! – but in the heart of a veteran teacher who proves that for all his experience and wisdom he can still be taken for a ride by his own fantasies. “A man’s character is his destiny,” we are told. The Emperor’s Club thinks honestly, if not with profundity, about what entails from this possession of virtue.
William Hundert (Kevin Kline) is, like Oedipus or Julius Caesar, unaware of what destiny really means. He believes in his own power to change a person so thoroughly that their destiny might be changed as well, although he forgets, unforgivably, that by its definition destiny is immune to change. His arrogance is, in short, the arrogance of education as a field and of its professionals; with the exception of The Class, which has its basis in real people as opposed to the people at a ritzy prep school, it is probably the best movie about teaching I’ve ever seen. It would be very easy to dismiss this as a story of “teacher has troubled student,” but The Emperor’s Club recognizes that even a really good teacher can be totally impotent in the face of a student’s implacability. When Hundert looks at Sedgewick at the end of the movie, he tells him straight out that he’s failed him. Teachers, as a general rule, don’t think about their successes – even their unlikely ones – so much as they see the faces of the kids they’ve failed.
Mr. Hundert’s classroom lets us know that he is a vigilant man before we see it at Mr. Julius Caesar contests. He uses the trick of knowing every student’s name before the end of class on the first day of school to make an impression. (It works, by the way; at worst the kids think of it like a party trick and at best they contrast it with the “I won’t remember your name until Friday, etc.” business they often get from other teachers.) His style is one which might be extinct now, if it ever existed at all in the past fifty or so years. He gives a lecture in which most of the proper nouns have to be placed by the students themselves, who come to class having done the reading already. His class is a series of review session with some level of commentary, and thus it takes an extraordinary amount of student buy-in and attention; he pauses in front of those nouns and waits only a half-second before hands go up in recognition of his expectation. Hundert’s foundation for that is a mystery; if he can get a class of teenagers to get so amped up for the classics that they are all willing to put in the time to memorize, say, forty-one consecutive Roman emperors, then he really might be “the finest teacher this school has ever had,” as one board member puts it to him.
During the Mr. Julius Caesar contests – a glorified episode of Greco-Roman themed, turn-based Jeopardy which is a pillar of the St. Benedict’s calendar – Hundert twice makes rapid, correct judgments based on little more than intuition. He does not know precisely how Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch) is cheating, but something about the dramatic way he puts his head in his hand and covers his eyes strikes him as improper. A little later Sedgewick rips the crib sheet out of his toga, knowing Hundert has caught him. Twenty-five years later, at a rematch of that pageant, Sedgewick (Joel Gretsch) cheats again with a little hi-tech twist. He pays off a grad student to sit in the back of the room and whisper answers into a microphone connected to the device in Sedgewick’s ear. “How long have you been hard of hearing, Sedgewick?” Hundert asks coyly. Yet Hundert’s vigilance leads to hollow victories, limited almost entirely to feeble chewing outs that bounce off Sedgewick entirely. There are small elements which play to Hundert’s advantage. Sedgewick’s son overhears his father making a low-rent supervillain monologue about how overrated virtue is, which the single biggest shift away from the source material and doesn’t serve the movie so well. And one of his favorite students, Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta as a child, Rahul Khanna as an adult) wins Mr. Julius Caesar because Hundert swings the competition towards him both times after he guesses Sedgewick is cheating. (The third contestant is Louis Masoudi, played by a young Jesse Eisenberg and then as a grown-up by Patrick Dempsey. It doesn’t make sense now either.) Even that little victory is tarnished, though; before Sedgewick cheated, Hundert did too. He admitted Sedgewick to the competition instead of the nerdy, stable Martin Blythe (Paul Dano as a child, Culp as an adult) because he was impressed with Sedgewick’s hard work to get to the cusp of the stage.
When Hundert is turned down for the post of headmaster of St. Benedict’s after forty years of work at the school and what he believes to be impeccable credentials, he may well look to his character for the deficiencies in himself. In one subplot, he subtly tries to insinuate himself into the marriage of a colleague, Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz), which he successfully does a quarter-century afterwards. He uses one of the most potent weapons available to teachers which also happens to scorch the earth about every time; he humiliates Sedgewick in class and says, in just so many words, that the boy is stupid. (Taste in movies doesn’t make someone smart or dumb, but the kid has posters of Breathless and Le mepris in his room, proving that young Bell had a way better eye for movies at fifteen than I did.) He also intercedes for Sedgewick even before he clandestinely boots Martin from the Mr. Julius Caesar contest, giving him an advantage during a tetchy confrontation over a library book. Perhaps it’s enough karma to see him passed over for the top job by the energetic politicker he mentored, James Ellerby (Rob Morrow). Or perhaps it’s simply that Hundert has never appreciated how much more powerful it is to call someone out than it is to reprimand them in the shadows. Hundert could have exposed Sedgewick both times, but doesn’t; at a young age, Sedgewick recognizes that Hundert saves him from humiliation in front of the school because his powerful father was in the audience. Hundert, in short, doesn’t have the ability to speak truth to power.
The movie could probably stand to call a little less attention to the fact that Hundert, Sedgewick, and Martin are each the only children of fathers who set a goal which, in the end, is probably not achievable. Sedgewick’s father is a senator from West Virginia, Hiram Bell (Harris Yulin), who is distant and disinterested in Sedgewick’s foibles. Martin’s father won the Mr. Julius Caesar contest that Martin should have had a chance at. Hundert’s father was a scholar with writing credits to his name; Hundert is shown struggling to put together a book, and the implication is that he’ll never come close to finishing. It makes an interesting counter to the string of individual names that Hundert throws at his kids, as if Julius Caesar or Aristotle or Cicero did history all by themselves. He is fascinated by effects, but gives little serious thought to causes; it’s the equivalent of being captivated by destiny while ignoring character. It’s cheap psychology, but it’s a port of origin for some of the most meaningful scenes of a movie full of really strong actors. Watching an older Martin Blythe figure out what Hundert was so kind to him in a recommendation letter – it was a make-up call for the Mr. Julius Caesar contest – is moving. “You think the things that happen to you when you’re fifteen don’t matter,” Sedgewick says at one point, and while that’s mostly a way to grease up an older and more vulnerable Mr. Hundert, he’s not wrong.
Hundert is a good teacher, but he overrates himself. I gasp a little every time he tells Senator Bell that his job is to “mold” Sedgewick’s character, because it emphatically is not. The senator is a boor, but he’s right when he tells the teacher that his job is to instruct him on facts, not to turn him into a certain kind of person. Hundert is a victim of his own conceit; part of his instruction should be to model what it means to have moral fiber and a clear conscience in the classroom each day and in every extracurricular encounter with the students. But it is much easier and gratifying to mold than to model, and despite good intentions, Hundert’s failures are many. The film balances it out with a touching scene towards the end, but I wish it hadn’t. The Emperor’s Club isn’t as successful when it hands out absolution like candy.