When I first heard about The Emperor’s Club, I figured it was just a rip-off of Dead Poet’s Society. It takes place in a similar setting, club versus society, come on! However, I decided to rent it anyway and was pleasantly surprised with an extremely thought-provoking movie about ethics, morals, and virtue. I’m still wondering about the title, though. It’s based on a novella called The Palace Thief which doesn’t make a whole lot more sense to me, but “thief” seems to go with the movie better. There was no discernable club in the film, only a class, so I’m left mystified. However, there is much more to this movie than the title.
The main character, William Hundert, is a teacher at St. Benedict’s Academy for Boys. He is asevere, upstanding man, devoted to Greek and Roman history and “molding the character” of his young students. That is, until Sedgewick Bell comes along. Bell is amischievous, yet charismatic, slacker, attending the Academy on his father’s merit as a United States Senator. Hundert sees intelligence and potential in the boy and attempts to foster it by encouraging him to study for the Mr. Julius Caesar academic competition in western civilization. In this endeavor, Hundert compromises some of his ideals.
These compromises spark an investigation of the slippery slope our nation is headed down, with particular emphasis on polititions. Bell and his father are of the school of thought that the ends justify the means. This is in contrast to the Academy’s motto, “The beginning determines the end.” I like the juxtapostion of those two statements. Is it true that cheating and lying are okay if you get what you want, or will being acheater and liar ultimately lead you to what you deserve. More to the point, even if the former is better for personal gain, and the latter isn’t really true, since life isn’t fair, how do we want to live our lives? We aim for high ideals, but are so often distracted by temptation.
The rest of the review may contain spoilers. You have been warned.
My only real problem with Kevin Kline’s character is the pompous accent that he takes on at times. It seemed a bit overdone to me. Luckily, the overbearing properness of his character is tempered at times, such as the scene in which he plays baseball with the boyss and hits the ball through the headmaster’s car window. The look on his face as he decides to follow the boys in running for cover is classic. On a more serious note, Hundert’s flaws are also revealed, which relieves some of the overbearing nature of his character.
I was left wanting to know more about his revelation to Martin Blythe that he gave his place in the competeition to Bell. That decision was the major compromise to his integrity, since it was the one that he chose all by himself. Ignoring Bell’s cheating in the first competition was at the order of the headmaster, who was more interested in the funding that Bell’s father was providing. Ignoring Bell’s cheating om the second competition was more a realization of failure and an interest in protecting the library that Bell’s gift would provide. Allowing Bell to enter the competition, even though he knew that Blythe had the better scores was a private judgement and one that haunted him for the rest of the movie. I wasn’t sure that he would confess to Blythe, and I think that knowing Blythe’s opinion of his professors’s mistake would have been important. It seems that Blythe forgave him in the scene where he drops his son off at school, but I would have liked a more detailed response, given the significance of Hundert’s action in his life.