A Compelling Story

John ArmstrongFilm

There is a whole genre of films that one critic has called “the inspiring-teacher-as-unappreciated-martyr” movie (e.g. Dead Poet’s Society, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Mr. Chips). The Emperor’s Club, starring Kevin Kline as Mr. Hundert, a professor of Greek and Roman history at a boys’ prep school, fits this category. As much as I enjoyed the other three films mentioned I think I enjoyed this one slightly more. 

Kline is a dedicated and selfless teacher, though a bit too moralistic for my tastes. The prestigious East Coast school holds an annual “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest in which the boy who can survive the competition and prevail wins the honor of being the campus Caesar for the year. The conflict in the story comes when Cedric Bell, a 15-year old son of a West Virginia U.S. Senator, appears in Mr. Hundert’s class. Bell is both smart and humorously rebellious, so he decides to change the school one way or the other.

The movie takes an unusual turn, following the Caesar competition, jumping ahead 25 years to the time when the young Cedric Bell is now a 40-year old married man, who decides to invite Mr. Hundert and his old school friends to a gathering where they will renew the “Mr. Caesar” contest one more time. This technique allows The Emperor’s Club to feel like two entirely different movies, while at the same time maintaining a thread that profoundlyunites the two stories.  It is an unusual film technique and is used well in this case. 

The big story here includes themes such as humor, virtue and living a truly good life. Mr. Hundert says, “It is not living that is important but living rightly.” The story, however, raises huge questions about ethical compromise and ambition, making it a movie about both ideas and ideals.

But the single moral lapse of the teacher, Mr. Hundert, ends up being the “story within the story” of The Emperor’s Club. I will not give the story away, but you will find Kline plays this role to near perfection. I was so taken with this movie that at the end I sat in silence and said to myself, “Wow, that was really, truly good!” I don’t do that too often.

I highly recommend The Emperor’s Club as a film that covers a wide ethical spectrum with incredible effect and very good storytelling. I loved it! Ebert and Roeper gave it “Two Thumbs Up” for very good reasons. It is an uplifting movie that underscores the importance of honor and personal integrity in a way that could lead to some great discussion and serious thought. I would happily show it to teens in a church group. I am quite sure there would be a great discussion to follow. 

The Emperor’s Club is 110 minutes in length and rated PG-13.