One is always glad to see high principles and honor and fair play coming in for a bit of the old Hollywood glamor treatment, however improbably. And, if it doesn’t seem too frivolous to say so, I personally am even more glad to see a bit of that glitz clinging to the classics. Who’d have thought that there could be any romance left in the idea of a good and dedicated bachelor schoolmaster who spends his whole life introducing young boys to ancient history?
Yet that is what William Hundert (Kevin Kline) does in Michael Hoffman’s film, The Emperor’s Club, adapted by Neil Tolkin from a short story by Ethan Canin. As a young man in the 1970s, Mr Hundert wins the love and admiration of his pupils at a boys’ boarding school called St. Benedict’s, somewhere in New England, in spite of what most boys of that era (to say nothing of ours) would have thought of as the dry-as-dust subject matter. And although he also has a pastoral role, it is in the classroom that he mainly wins respect.
He is also able to inspire in the boys a desire to do well in the school’s “Mr Julius Caesar” contest, a tradition of the school going back to the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt. In order to wear the toga and the laurel wreath as Mr Julius Caesar, the three top scholars in the class have to answer questions of increasing difficulty on their knowledge of ancient history until two of them drop out, through being unable to answer. A new boy in class, Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a senator (Harris Yulin), is converted with suspicious ease by Mr Hundert from a poor student, a prankster and smartmouth, to one of the three contenders.
In the contest, however, young Bell cheats, having somehow (we are not told how) acquired the answers and stuck them to the inside sleeve of his toga. When confronted by Mr Hundert, he reverts to being a troublemaker. Twenty five years later, now a wealthy businessman, Bell offers the school a large contribution in return for a rematch of the Mr Julius Caesar contest. He wants, he says, to redeem his “intellectual honor.” The rematch is rather exciting — particularly if you suppose that the purpose of an education in ancient history is to prepare people to compete on “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”— but it is also hokey and contrived.
For the point of learning to play fair in childish games is that adulthood will provide sterner and more important tests. And although one is naturally and entirely in sympathy with the idea that children ought to learn a principled approach to life, Sedgewick’s question about his cheating, “Who gives a s***?” is never really answered. Obviously Mr Hundert gives a s***, as do the other boys in the class, more or less, even though they look on Sedgewick as a leader. But why do they? Is it just because Mr Hundert has told them that principle is important? And who told it to him? And what do the principles include besides not cheating on quizzes? These are questions ought to interest the filmmakers, but they do not. It seems to be a matter of individual choice — and don’t you feel bad if you make the wrong one? Likewise, learning is always painless in this school, and I regret that the film reinforces the view of education that it is essentially a preparation for “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” The drama of a quiz show is of course much more cinematic than the ability to synthesize information into, say, a cogent three hour essay on the late Roman Republic, but the triviality of the contest leaves its mark on the alleged importance of the principle.
There are other problems. Hundert’s romance with a married colleague, Elizabeth (Embeth Davidtz), which brings them together only decades later, after her divorce, is so truncated that it might have been better to leave it out altogether. I suspect it is left in only so that the audience will not wonder (as the boys wonder) if Mr Hundert is a homosexual. Also just hinted at but not explained or elaborated on in any way are his enthusiasm for single-skull rowing, and his troubled relationship with his father. Why bring these things up if they are to get such summary treatment, and have so little to do with anything else in the story?
Finally, it is rather a cheap shot to suggest that the political class is unprincipled and hypocritical. The senator strenuously objects to Hundert’s project to “mold” his son. “Jesus God in heaven,” he cries, “You, sir, will not mold my son. I will mold him.” And he does: into a crooked, scheming, lying, cheating politician like himself who believes that what he is pleased to call “the real world” is a place “where people do what they have to do to get what they want.” Ancient history is about as much about “the real world” as it gets, and it is a shame to leave the audience with the airy-fairy liberal point of view that the real world, the world outside the safe and cloistered environment of St. Benedict’s, is corrupt and not worth the attention of a man of honor like Hundert.
“Conquest without achievement means nothing,” he tells the boys of a now-forgotten ancient war-lord. But this is not true. It certainly meant something to the people of the time. That they are now forgotten is not their fault, as it will not be ours when we are as forgotten ourselves. Conquest and power are important, and it is a shame to suggest that the boys are learning (apparently) only that they are too good for such things. But Mr Kline is always watchable and likeable, and most viewers will find something to enjoy in the movie.