William Hundert (Kevin Kline) may as well be Brutus—a stoic man of morals and virtue whom he describes as “the noblest Roman of them all.” Like Brutus believed in the good of the Roman Empire, Mr. Hundert, a beloved teacher of Classical history at St. Benedict’s School for Boys, is a stoic man who believed in the good of his students.
So when the trouble-making Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), the son of a local senator, enrolls in St. Benedict’s and challenges Mr. Hundert’s belief, the teacher begins his own conspiracy to ensure Sedgewick’s success in the school’s Mr. Julius Caesar competition.
The Emperor’s Club, directed by Michael Hoffman and written by Neil Tolkin, is more than a story of about a teacher and his efforts to change the character his students at a Harry Potter-style Hogwarts. (Mr. Hundert resembles the fair and calculated Professor Minerva McGonagall while the St. Benedict students resemble young wizards, wearing Gryffindor-esqe gold and yellow ties as well as scarlet red blazers and gray slacks.) No, as the movie plays out, one learns bits of philosophy; some things like stupidity, says Mr. Hundert, are destined to last forever.
From St. Benedict’s, one could have been just as easily transported about thirty years earlier to another all boy’s New England-style boarding school such as that illustrated by John Knowles’ novel A Separate Peace. Sedgewick Bell might as well be the ever popular-daredevil Phineas, while Mr. Hundert may have been the scholarly best friend Gene Forrester looking back upon his mistakes at his beloved boarding school. The problem with this dichotomy is that the true character of Sedgewick, although handsome and charismatic, is not good, and Mr. Hundert’s actions are not fueled by jealousy, but a rather more altruistic nature.
“Who gives a shit,” lies Sedgewick’s true philosophy. In a world of winning and losing, Sedgewick Bell only cares about winning, no matter what the costs. “Honestly, who out there gives a shit about your principles and your virtues?” Sedgewick asked his teacher Mr. Hundert. “Honestly, look at you. What do you have to show for yourself? I live in the real world where people do what they need to do to get what they want. And if it’s lying and it’s cheating, then so be it.”
Mr. Hundert, being a Classics professor, knew better than anyone that history was bound to repeat itself. However, at heart, Mr. Hundert is a teacher, like Professor Ellis Fowler featured in The Twilight Zone episode “The Changing of the Guard”— focused on molding young minds, however incorrigible. Like Professor Fowler, Mr. Hundert hoped that he could change all his students including Sedgewick, however, it would take a reunion with his former students to teach Mr. Hundert that it is not the failures, but the successes in his career that determine a man and a teacher.
The Emperor’s Club is not a particularly new or unique story. It is a story that had been told in by Ithaca College teacher and Twlight Zone creator Rod Serling in his 1959 episode “The Changing of the Guard” (only Mr. Serling told the story in 30 minutes while The Emperor’s Club runs about an hour and 50 minutes). It is a story about a group of boys and their power play illustrated in countless books and literature.
While Sedgewick might as well be a primitive leader of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, savagely competing in a jungle for the prestigious title of St. Benedict’s School for Boys’ Mr. Julius Caesar, his followers and competition include Louis Masoudi (Jesse Eisenberg), Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta) and Martin Blythe (Paul Dano). While Sedgewick may resemble Jack falling to wickedness while appearing brave and encouraging innumerable pranks even without the help of a conch shell, Martin Blythe appears as Piggy, a studious boy who becomes the sacrificial lamb for everyone.
In director Michael Hoffman’s story The Emperor’s Club, Martin Blythe is the only one who truly grew out of Sedgewick Bell’s Neverland—the true tragic hero. And if anything, Mr. Brutus—“the noblest teacher of them all”—owes the biggest favor to his student, Martin Blythe.