Heraclitus said you can’t step in the same river twice. But Michael Hoffman’s The Emperor’s Club suggests it’s best never to step out of the river in the first place. This ethos is embodied by William Hundert (Kevin Kline), a career boarding school man, who has taught Roman history to generations of boys at St. Benedict’s. On his bucolic campus, the dream of keeping things the way they always were seems within reach.
So insulated is this world that contemporary pop culture causes not even a ripple on the campus’s idyllic pond. In one scene, a ’70’s rock song plays while Hundert, still in white shirt and tie, puts the boys to bed. He doesn’t need to say a word. The music stops at the very stroke of 9:30, the boys’ designated bedtime. Humbly satisfied, Hundert smiles and turns off the hall light. It’s not hard to guess that he will soon mourn a loss of innocence.
Enter Sedgwick Bell (played as a teenager by Emile Hirsch and as an adult by Joel Gretsch). Before this son of a U.S. Senator enrolls in the middle of a school year, the boys in Hundert’s charge are dutifully memorizing the names of Roman emperors and the aphoristic wisdom of classical thinkers. Bell’s appearance is an invasion, of boorishness, of Bob Dylan posters, and of dangerous skepticism — in other words, of something approximating the present. (Before this moment, it is easy to forget even what decade we are in.)
The next turn comes when St. Benedict’s sponsors a “Mister Julius Caesar” contest, in which three boys compete before the entire school, answering Mr. Hundert’s questions about Roman history. Bell is among the competitors, but only because Hundert has favored the rascally but improving student with a higher grade than he deserved on the final quiz. This moral lapse on Hundert’s part looks like a result of his desire to encourage potential rather than to favor the most privileged of the privileged boys, but it is an error he will long regret.
Bell does not win the contest — that honor goes to Deepak Mehta (Rishi Mehta) — but he answers enough questions to impress his peers and his father. Hundert sees that Bell is cheating, with a crib sheet inside his toga. The teacher’s instinct is to expose Bell’s fraudulence, but he backs off when instructed to by Headmaster Woodbridge (Edward Herrmann), who is hoping for a donation from the Senator.
So yes, the teenage Bell is the snake who, with his pranks and French porn magazines, brings the corruption of the world to St. Benedict’s (that such corruption never before penetrated the school’s walls is amazing to this viewer). Still, it’s only when Hundert finally leaves campus and journeys to the City to speak with Senator Bell about his wayward son, that the teacher suddenly realizes the outside world has long ago given up on the ideals of St. Benedict’s.
The slick, arrogant politician (Harris Yulin) asks what is the use of studying the Romans. Given Hundert’s star-gazing, wisdom-seeking, and utterly acritical approach to history, the Senator’s question sounds like an awfully good one to me. But in this film, it is a villain’s question, the product of self-centeredness and base practicality rather than intelligent skepticism. And the answer is one that the film will assume rather than debate and explore. Based on “The Palace Thief,” a short story by Ethan Canin, the movie has invited comparison to Dead Poets Society. But, while Dead Poets Society celebrated individuality and self-expression, condemning the ways that traditional thinking can crush a young spirit, The Emperor’s Club has an anti-liberal dagger hidden in its cloak.
Neil Tolkin’s script is typical of a certain kind of recent conservative film, in which the right wing argument engenders sympathy by looking “lost.” I’m thinking of some of the let’s-weep-over-lost maleness-films starring or directed by Clint Eastwood. Their brilliance lies in their ability to trump up the urgency of the cause by appealing to pity. If we believe that the macho man or traditional education is gone — that the world has been taken over by feminists and crooked liberals — we’ll be more zealous about kindling the conservative flames, or so the thinking goes.
But given that we elected George W. Bush, who then helped to stack the Congress with a bunch of his buddies, this moviegoer, at least, is not feeling too weepy about right wing causes. If we don’t already have enough study of great white men in the schools, we’ll be sure to get a large supply in the coming years. When you strip away some of the film’s layers (like its sentimentalizing of teacher-student relationships), it is essentially an argument against the skeptical thinking and protest mentality of the 1960s, which apparently doesn’t arrive at St. Benedict’s until the ’70s. The movie suggests that if we never started questioning authority and the wisdom of the ages, we’d all be better off. The young Bell is the representation of the forces that sent the moral order into a spiral from which it has never recovered.
Needless to say, The Emperor’s Club never acknowledges that the moral order in the United States has always been a fiction. It never dares to critique, for example, the unfairness of the very boarding school system that St. Benedict’s represents, the one that educated only the boys of the elite, sending Senators’ sons off to Yale and Harvard despite the fact that they were C students. The only sign of the film’s latent anxiety over this issue appears at the end, when Hundert comes out of retirement and returns to St. Benedict’s in order to teach the very same material in the very same way. Suddenly, the classroom is a veritable melting pot of race and gender. Yes, the film not so subtly argues, the good old way of thinking, if given another chance, can be just as good for the new, multi-cultural world as it was for the old white male version. It’s a river I’d rather stay out of altogether.