The Emperor's Club
|The Emperor's Club|
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Michael Hoffman|
|Produced by||Marc Abraham
Andrew S. Karsch
|Screenplay by||Neil Tolkin|
|Based on||The Palace Thief
by Ethan Canin
|Music by||James Newton Howard|
|Edited by||Harvey Rosenstick|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
The Emperor's Club is a 2002 American drama film directed by Michael Hoffman and starring Kevin Kline. Based on Ethan Canin's short story "The Palace Thief," the film follows a prep school teacher and his students at a fictional boys' prep school, St. Benedict's Academy, near Washington, D.C.
It was filmed at Emma Willard School in Troy, New York, although St. Benedict's Academy is said to be modeled after Phillips Academy, a preparatory school in Andover, Massachusetts. Kline, discussing the film at his alma mater, St. Louis Priory School, said that he modeled his character after the Rev. Dom Timothy Horner, an English Benedictine monk and headmaster of Priory when Kline was enrolled there.
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In 2001, William Hundert, a retired Classics teacher, is flown out to a luxurious resort in the Hamptons owned by one of his former students in order to be the guest of honor in an impromptu reunion. As he gets settled in he reflects on the turn of events in a flashback of his time working at Saint Benedict's Academy, a prestigious preparatory school.
Twenty-eight years earlier, a younger Mr. Hundert is enthusiastic about the start of the school year. His class turns out to be a strict yet inspiring lesson for the freshmen. They include laid-back Louis Masoudi, the introverted Martin Blythe, and the studious Deepak Mehta, all highly intelligent. Hundert inspires his students to study hard in order to become one of the three contestants for The Emperor's Club and be crowned "Mr. Julius Caesar", a competition which puts the top three students of his class in a contest where they will be asked questions regarding the Classics. When the headmaster explains the contest to the students, he mentions that Martin's father was once a "Mr. Julius Caesar".
Hundert quickly gains the respect of his class and the school year gets off to an orderly start. However, Hundert's tightly controlled world is shaken when a new student, Sedgewick Bell, walks into his classroom. Bell is the cocky son of a senior U.S. senator who possesses none of Hundert's principles. A fierce battle of wills begins between Hundert and Bell. Bell's rebellious nature quickly makes him the interest of the class, as he not only is willing to talk back against Hundert, he also freely shares pornographic material and is willing to play hooky and travel off-limits to a nearby prep school for girls.
After Sedgewick orchestrates a prank then spoofs the class, Hundert humiliates Bell when he asks him to name a single Roman Emperor. When Bell cannot, Hundert asks the other students to name the line of succession of the Roman Empire, to which the boys perfectly recite the chronological order. This embarrasses Bell when he realizes that while the other boys enjoy his pranks, they are unwilling to slack off in their studies. Hundert also makes a trip to Washington, D.C. to meet with Senator Bell from West Virginia. Bell's father is clearly uninterested in his son's character development while at St. Benedict's, instead telling Hundert just to teach Bell lessons so he can graduate, giving Hundert some insight into the younger Bell's upbringing.
Hundert returns to St. Benedict's, where in a phone call, Senator Bell chews out Sedgewick for wasting his time in having to see Hundert and his money on the tuition; yet he does not reprimand Sedgewick for goofing off in class. After seeing a chastised Sedgewick, Hundert tries to develop a closer student-teacher relationship and become a mentor to Bell in order to help change him into a better man. Bell starts studying, proving to be a bright student, and his grades improve enormously. Bell finishes in fourth place in Hundert's competition that precedes the Emperor's Club contest, along with classmates Masoudi, Blythe, and Mehta. Hundert privately decides to raise his grade on the final essay after reviewing it again, thus moving him above Blythe, the third place winner. Hundert is caught between celebrating Bell's newfound success and feeling guilty when he sees a despondent Blythe sitting all by himself under a tree. Hundert is also saddened by the fact that another teacher, with whom he has a growing friendship, is moving to England due to her husband's job.
The entire school watches the competition as the three contestants are quizzed by Hundert. After many questions, the confident Masoudi is eliminated after he makes an incorrect answer. Hundert becomes increasingly suspicious of Bell raising his toga to his head to think. When Hundert takes a recess to confer with the headmaster on suspicion of cheating, he is urged to give Bell a pass, as Senator Bell is in attendance. Rather than confront Sedgewick, Hundert instead asks him a question not in the books, "Who was Hamilcar Barca?", knowing full well that the answer would not be on any materials used to cheat (it was not in the curriculum) but knowing that Mehta would be able to answer it because Hundert knew that Mehta, who had an interest in military science, was reading about Barca on his own time. Bell is stumped and Mehta is crowned Mr. Julius Caesar. Afterwards, Bell admits to Hundert that he cheated by placing crib notes on the inside of his toga sleeve, and wonders why he was not taken to task. Although Hundert does not publicize this, the trust he once had with Bell is broken.
Students move up to higher grades before their graduation from St. Benedict's, and Bell is shown reverting to his lax behavior and lack of interest in academia. In 1976, Bell is shown barely squeaking by in his classes, gaining acceptance to Yale University only on account of being the senator's son. Hundert regrets not being able to influence Bell more.
Twenty-five years later, Hundert's life has changed. A lifelong bachelor, he is now married to the teacher with whom he had a close friendship for years after her marriage ended. After the headmaster of Saint Benedict's dies, Hundert seems poised to succeed to the position. However, the Board of Trustees promotes a younger, less experienced teacher (Rob Morrow) to the headmastership based on his abilities to raise funds for a cash-strapped school. Shocked by this turn of events, Hundert declares his retirement from teaching and seeks to follow his father's profession of writing, but little comes of it.
Meanwhile, Sedgewick Bell, now a wealthy CEO, is poised to make a gigantic contribution to St. Benedict's in the name of his now-deceased father, but only on the basis that Hundert come to a black tie party with all his 1973 students in a rematch of the Mr. Julius Caesar competition. The flashback ends and Hundert now eagerly gets ready to referee the rematch, which is preceded by a dinner showing his former students, now married and having moved on to successful careers, with an adult Deepak Mehta working as a college professor teaching Classics himself. However, his reunion with Martin Blythe seems awkward. Blythe still has some of his awkwardness as a boy, but tells Hundert he appreciates getting a glowing letter of recommendation from him when he applied to college.
The Mr. Julius Caesar competition is held in an elaborate room made up to look like a Roman villa. After Masoudi is eliminated (having forgotten most of what he learned over the years), the competition boils down to a series of questions between Bell and Mehta. In a sense of deja vu, when Hundert notices Bell stumble on a question then recover, he notices that Sedgewick is wearing a tiny earpiece with which he is in contact with a graduate student feeding answers to him. Hundert once again asks an obscure question he first asked his class back in 1973, "Who was Shutruk-Nakhunte?", mentioned on a plaque that all the other students knew about, but Bell, having been a late arrival (or never bothering to look at it), fails to answer. The reason for this was mentioned at the start of the school year by Mr. Hundert to his students (minus Bell) when he explained that any reference to Shutruk-Nakhunte cannot be found in any textbook as great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. Consequently, the graduate student was unable to find the answer inside the textbook he was using to feed Bell the answers. Despite encouragements and hints from his classmates, Bell is stumped once again and Mehta defends his title as Mr. Julius Caesar. Immediately after the competition, Sedgewick launches into a speech about how he plans to succeed his late father by campaigning for the U.S. Senate, and is applauded by his former schoolmates. Hundert is privately incensed that the reunion and rematch was no more than a political fundraiser and excuses himself to the restroom where he is met by Bell. Hundert confronts Bell on his cheating, but says he is not going to publicize it, as he is a teacher, not a policeman or judge. Hundert bemoans his failure to reform his former student and says sooner or later that Sedgewick will have to confront his own worst enemy: himself. An indifferent and unmoved Bell says that Hundert has let life pass him by, whereas in "his world" people behave in Machiavellian ways to get what they want, and that he will be known all over the United States because he will win the election no matter what. Unbeknownst to Bell or Hundert, one of Sedgewick's sons was also in the restroom. He looks at his father with shock, implying that one unseen punishment for Bell will be the same rocky relationship Hiram Bell had with the younger Sedgewick. Seeing Blythe having a drink at the bar, Hundert confesses that Blythe deserved to be in the Mr. Julius Caesar competition, but that he gave his spot away to Sedgewick. Blythe says that it does not matter since he has accomplished other goals in life; but his body language gives ambiguous signs that he is unappreciative of having bad memories revisited.
The day after the rematch the resort looks barren (save for Sedgewick Bell, who is filming a political commercial). Hundert is then greeted by his 1973 students who give him a "surprise breakfast" and present various mementos of their time under his tutelage. Mehta gives a gift "from one teacher to another", a plaque showing how a teacher's work lives on through generations. The men all wave goodbye to Hundert as the helicopter takes him off island back home, whereas Hundert reflects that although he failed with Sedgewick Bell, he succeeded in molding multiple other students.
Hundert thus returns to St. Benedict's and again teaches Classics to a new class (which is now coeducational and more racially diverse than his earlier classes). It is also revealed that one of his students is Blythe's son, who is proud that his father was once Hundert's student. Hundert then looks out the window to see Martin Blythe proudly waving to him, and an expression that Hundert has found peace with his past troubles and gladness that he has been truthful with Blythe. In a scene echoing an earlier scene with the young Blythe, Hundert requests the Blythe boy read the Shutruk-Nahunte plaque over the door, just as his father once did. He reads it without stuttering or hesitating implying that the older Blythe trained his son well.
- Kevin Kline as William Hundert
- Emile Hirsch as Sedgewick Bell
- Joel Gretsch as adult Sedgewick
- Embeth Davidtz as Elizabeth
- Rob Morrow as James Ellerby
- Edward Herrmann as Headmaster Woodbridge
- Harris Yulin as Senator Hiram Bell
- Paul Dano as Martin Blythe
- Steven Culp as adult Martin
- Jesse Eisenberg as Louis Masoudi
- Patrick Dempsey as adult Louis
- Rishi Mehta as Deepak Mehta
- Rahul Khanna as adult Deepak
- Caitlin O'Heaney as Mrs. Woodbridge
- Gabriel Millman as Robert Brewster
- Tim Realbuto as Jackson Pheiffer
- Chris Morales as Eugene Field
- Luca Bigini as Copeland Gray
- Michael Coppola as Russell Hall
- Sean Fredricks as Mr. Harris
- Katherine O'Sullivan as The Nun
The film received mixed reviews from critics; review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes holds a 50% "Fresh" rating, based on 123 reviews. On Metacritic, the film had an average score of 49 out of 100, based on 32 reviews.
- Dead Poets Society (1989), a similar drama film set in a boys' preparatory school, about a teacher influencing a class of young men
- In the House (2012), another film about a complicated instructor–student relationship
- "The Changing of the Guard" (The Twilight Zone), a June 1, 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone starring Donald Pleasence as a retiring English teacher at a New England boys' school, who questions whether or not he has made any difference in his students' lives
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