The Emperor’s Club, a film
I watched this film with my wife and daughter and all of us agreed that it is a profoundly deep piece of cinematography but above all, carefully (decidedly Un-Hollywood) thought out on the part of the screen writer. In The Emperor’s Club several scenarios are playing out at the same time, while a dedicated teacher does his best to teach beyond the subject material to instill greater lessons of life in his students. Mr. Hundert is a teacher of Western Civilization, teaching the history of the Greeks and Romans to boys in a parochial school. The central characters in the movie are a group of boys whose lives become affected by what they learn in Mr. Hundert’s class.
Besides Mr. Hundert, the primary character in the story is one Sedgwick Bell, the son of a U.S. Senator. He is a brilliant boy, but without discipline and without direction in his life, presumably in large part due to his father’s involvement in politics to the exclusion of his son. Mr. Hundert takes a special interest in the boy’s success, possibly because his own father expected much of his son, but gave him little in the way of attention (only briefly alluded to in the film.) After a meeting with the boy’s father, Mr. Hundert gives the young Sedgwick a copy of his own high school history book and manages to inspire the boy to seek after the prize of winning a spot on the competition of Mr. Julius Caesar. The boy does apply himself, but does not quite make the top three. In one of the poignant moments in the film, Mr. Hundert agonizes over the winners of the top three positions and makes the decision to move Sedgwick into the position number three, though he has not quite earned that place. It is a decision made with good motives and with high hopes, but one that Mr. Hundert will regret for a long time to come. Sedgwick, unwilling to face the possibility of loosing the competition, elects to cheat, writing down the answers and fastening them inside his toga. Realizing the cheating, Mr. Hundert finds that the school headmaster is unwilling to call the boy on it, as his father the senator is in the audience. So, Mr. Hundert uses a question not on his note cards, and Sedgwick is unable to answer it, and so looses the competition.
Many years later Mr. Hundert passes through his own ethical crisis, where a younger man, for whom he had secured a teaching position at the college, gets selected instead of himself as headmaster. Deeply hurt over being so passed up after seventeen years as assistant headmaster, Mr. Hundert resigns his teaching position. He says he wants to write, but can find no inspiration and instead finds himself invited to proctor a rematch of the Mr. Julius Caeser competition, hosted and paid for by the now-wealthy Sedgwick Bell. Mr. Hundert agrees and hopes to find that Sedgwick is a changed man, and that his wealth has been gained as a result of honest industry. But he is deeply disappointed when he finds Sedgwick again cheating in a second attempt to win the competition. When confronted with his cheating, Mr. Hundert finds that Mr. Bell has no conscience regarding his willingness to use the philosophy “the ends justify the means.” In another of the poignant moments in the film, the young son of Mr. Bell overhears a conversation between his father and Mr. Hundert. In essence Mr. Bell has told Mr. Hundert that nobody cares about ethics and morality, essentially the very same thing he had said long ago in the class regarding the moral dilemma facing Brutus.
But while Mr. Hundert feels he has failed to teach Mr. Bell the real lessons of history, he finds his other students have done well in life. Deepak, the winner of the Mr. Caeser contest, has become a teacher. And Mr. Blythe, wrongly moved from third place to fourth to make room for Sedgwick, shows the confidence in Mr. Hundert to place his own son in the St. Benedict’s school. The film ends with Mr. Hundert back in his classroom, asking the young Mr. Blythe to read the inscription at the rear of the classroom, of an ancient general and king who was lost to history. According to Mr. Hundert, history has no record of Shutruk Nuhunte because “great conquest and success without contribution is without significance.”
This film is a fine, inspirational work that I would recommend to all teachers. Mr. Hundert says to the senator, Sedgwick’s father, “my job is to mold your son’s character.” The senator begs to differ, saying that the teacher’s only job is to deliver facts and knowledge to his son, not to mold his character. He claims that job for himself. His success is measured in his son’s complete lack of character, though Sedgwick, as an aspiring politician, is happy to speak of character as though he had some of his own.
In my discussions with my wife and daughter, we came up with the following list of ethical and moral questions that make the film so complex and interesting. I list them in roughly chronological order.
This is not a comprehensive list, but it gives a picture of the multifaceted character of this profound and well-acted movie.