by Sophia Nguyen
After Mr. Chips has said his final goodbye, after Crocker-Harris packs away his Browning and Mr. Holland, arm quivering, allows his baton to fall to his side, after Forrester finds his introduction and Jaime Escalante his confirming test results, after the last student clambers down from his desk in Keating’s classroom, Mr. William Hundert tells us: “This is a story without surprises.”
The Emperor’s Club might be the last and least of a line—genus: inspirational teacher movie; species: prep school melodrama—its palest, scrawniest scion. Googling its title is just as likely to summon old Eliot Spitzer headlines as cast and crew information, or the lukewarm reviews it received back in 2002. If anything, the movie will be remembered for starring a young Emile Hirsch, Paul Dano, and Jesse Eisenberg — a footnote to their long careers.
Still, The Emperor’s Club was my Dead Poets Society. I know that this doesn’t make a lot of sense: Dead Poets Society was designed to be loved, is a movie about love. Keating makes the work of teaching look like joyful contagion. No yawping for Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline); his favorite nouns begin with hard c’s: conviction, civic virtue, character. But it’s not just for lack of Robin Williams that The Emperor’s Club faded from memory. Its uplift doesn’t go so high. Its tragedy feels pettier. It’s a story of winners and losers, and rigged games. It’s an afterschool special that can’t decide what it wants us to learn.
When I first saw The Emperor’s Club, I was in the fifth grade. St. Benedict’s seemed like an impossible place, a world away from the familiar public school churn of hall passes, recess, multiple choice testing. I was too young to name this feeling, but the secret sauce to this kind of movie is aspirational nostalgia. It evokes fondness for an elite experience that, in real life, most of the audience is actively excluded from. At St. Benedict’s, the quads are greener than green and the bricks rest eternally in their place. There is wood paneling, a Latin motto. The teachers wear tweed and go rowing in the mornings. The boys wear red blazers and read important books in hardcover. I would’ve never belonged there, not least because I’m a girl. But while The Emperor’s Club showed a brief glimpse of the girls’ school across the river, the prospect appealed to me less. I related more readily to the boys’ awkwardness than to their female counterparts’ smooth, intimidating flirtatiousness. Middle school baffled and bruised. In the absence of close friendships, I longed for their simple camaraderie.
Mr. Hundert serves as classical history teacher, assistant headmaster, and self-appointed steward of St. Benedict’s moral and intellectual tradition. He has no wife, no hobbies—his personal life is so reduced that you can only think of him as his classroom self, “Mr. Hundert.” Every year, Mr. Hundert presides over the school’s most prestigious contest. His top three students, swathed in togas, participate in a history bee. Everyone gathers to watch them take turns answering questions about the Greeks and Romans. The winner gets crowned “Mr. Julius Caesar.”
The contenders include Martin Blythe, a shy boy struggling to live up to a father who had been the “Mr. Julius Caesar” of his graduating class; smart aleck Louis Masoudi; and Deepak Mehta, often seen reading well beyond the class syllabus, for pleasure. Then comes Sedgewick Bell, reluctant learner, mischief-maker. He arrives at St. Benedict’s with a shit-eating grin, a trunk full of porn, and little interest in his studies. Mr. Hundert judges him “a bit of a Visigoth,” but after meeting the boy’s loathsome father, a U.S. senator, he encourages the boy’s potential. Sedgewick slowly climbs the ranks while Mr. Hundert looks on approvingly, but he doesn’t pass muster: after the last exam, he ranks fourth in the class. It’s then that Mr. Hundert takes Sedgewick’s place as the rule-breaker: a quick tick of his pen turns an A-minus into an A-plus, and Sedgewick pulls ahead of round-faced, bespectacled Martin to qualify for the contest.
I’ve seen this movie too many times to decide: Are we surprised, or aren’t we, at how the contest plays out? When Mr. Hundert sees Sedgewick cheating off of a crib sheet, he seems to age ten years. He recovers swiftly, asking a question based on outside reading to ensure that Deepak wins the contest. Afterward, he confronts Sedgewick—it’s high time for a lecture—but their roles reverse. Mr. Hundert gets put on the stand. Hundert gets put on the stand. “Why didn’t you stand up and call me out?” Sedgewick challenges him, “Was it because of my father?” Mr. Hundert’s denial falls flat.
In the following decades, Mr. Hundert is passed over for promotion to headmaster. He watches the job go to the callow young Latin teacher with big fundraising plans. He retires from teaching. He struggles to take up the mantle of his father, a famous Renaissance scholar, by getting to that book project he’d been kicking around for years. He marries, at last, the dark-haired, clever woman he’d admired from afar in the faculty lounge. He spends most of the time in his study looking out the window, and sighing. She brings him tea. The empire slides into decline.
Sedgewick, now a CEO of a major corporation, throws a class reunion and Julius Caesar rematch at the resort he owns. Now lawyers, doctors, and lords of finance, the St. Benedict’s men gather in black tie to watch Louis, Deepack, and Sedgewick face off in front of a replica Roman villa. There’s a brief, sickening tilt of déjà vu when Mr. Hundert sees the grad student at the back of the room, feeding Sedgewick the answers through an earpiece. Again, he throws the contest to Deepak, with no one else the wiser. That’s when Sedgewick announces his run for office.
Can anyone really be surprised that he uses this re-match to circle the wagons for his campaign, under the pretense of reclaiming his honor? This is the honor among thieves: Sedgewick simply exposes the St. Benedict’s men as the old boys’ club they always have been. Every gathering of old friends doubles as an opportunity to trade favors, make deals, consolidate power. Hundert, though, feels as if he has been lured under false pretenses, used as a prop. Humiliated and enraged, he confronts Sedgewick not in the honey-lit dorm but in the resort bathroom. They strip away the varnish to their conversation; it’s nastier in all ways. One day, the old man tells Sedgewick, you’ll have to confront having lived without virtue, and I pity you. And one day, the young man retorts, you’ll realize that no one gives a shit. In the stalls behind them, a toilet flushes and the door opens to reveal Sedgewick’s kid. The boy stumbles out of the room, wordless. Another lousy father; another disappointed son.
Like many members of its genre, The Emperor’s Club feels deeply for father-haunted boys. Their shoulders must broaden to bear the weight of familial legacy: All that blood and treasure; all those bad habits. Maybe his inability to avert Sedgewick’s path spurs Hundert to find Martin at the hotel bar and confess that he’d sabotaged the test results. Martin’s assurances of forgiveness sound strained.
It’s stupid that this petty adolescent loss should bother him so much. But The Emperor’s Club solemnly believes that he was deprived of his birthright: the chance to claim his share of Blythe family glory. “Man hands on misery to man,” the Larkin poem goes, “It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Those who can dig themselves out from under that crushing inheritance, who can provide a future free and clear for their offspring, are heroes.
This is a story without surprises, and this is also a story about failure. Most obviously, Mr. Hundert fails Sedgewick, the prodigal son. The flipside of that, the movie suggests, is that he failed Martin, a boy less charismatic but more deserving. As a middle-schooler I was perfectly satisfied by this narrative. The Sedgewick/Martin dualism had a kind of sense-making symmetry. The Emperor’s Club confirmed some of my core beliefs: that nerds were virtuous, that favoritism was wrong, that grown-ups face up to their mistakes.
Once I reached high school, I moved onto other movies. My mind didn’t return to The Emperor’s Club, at least not consciously, for years. And yet I strongly suspect that it installed the chip on my shoulder. It cooled me to the golden boys in my own class, and to the teachers that indulged them. It also convinced me of the pointlessness of wondering what made the Sedgewicks of the world so winning. Authority figures behave arbitrarily, I shrugged, and they move in mysterious ways.
But really, the patterns were obvious. Teachers who told high-achieving white boys that they could be president one day, or rocket scientists, if that’s what they wanted, habitually mixed up their Asian-American students. When I wasn’t being handed back someone else’s exam, or mistakenly accused of note-passing, my gender and model minority status made me oddly flattened in the eyes of the adults I was desperate to please. Whatever work I did was seen as standard-issue overachievement, as innate as a shark’s inability to breathe if it doesn’t swim.
Making a lot of Sedgewick and Martin, The Emperor’s Club does not notice—and thus shares—Mr. Hundert’s third failure: his neglect of Deepak Mehta. From the beginning, Deepak loves history most deeply. Unlike his mercenary peers, he alone follows in Mr. Hundert’s footsteps, becoming a college professor and devoting his life to scholarship. Deepak should be the man’s pride and joy. But he’s forgotten as soon as he exits the shot.
The movie doesn’t think his arc is worth screen-time, reflecting the racism of Hollywood at large. (We see his mother, and later his wife. No father in sight.) It makes nothing of the fact that Deepak’s is the only brown face in a sea of white. Ethnic and racial difference must have inflected his relationship to St. Benedict’s—to say nothing of the imperial Western history he sought to master. But even if this movie were capable of imagining such a narrative, Mr. Hundert certainly isn’t. Deepak’s precocity is steady state, immutable. His talent inspires none of his teacher’s interventionist fantasies. And Mr. Hundert’s short-changing him inspires no guilt. When I re-watch the movie now—especially a scene, towards the end, of Deepak presenting Mr. Hundert with a plaque to thank him for his guidance—it doesn’t comfort me at all.
After the reunion, Mr. Hundert returns to teaching. Waiting for him is a new generation of co-ed, racially diverse St. Benedict’s students. One of them is Martin Blythe, Jr., and the teacher catches a glimpse of the elder Martin out the window. They exchange a smile. He returns to his lecture. In his classroom, not a thing has changed—every painting hanging straight, every marble bust secure on its pedestal.
At seventeen, I applied to and attended Yale, because the dream wouldn’t stay dead. It seemed like a promised land of neo-Gothic architecture. I couldn’t help but be drawn to an institution that insists that every English major memorize the first eighteen lines of The Canterbury Tales—as if tradition itself, tried and true, would have an incantatory power to make me fitter, wittier, more certain. There, I’d learn to live among the Sedgewicks and Martins and Deepaks and Louises. I’d gain access to what remained good in their world.
There’s been barely a summer between me and my graduation. So far, no one memory dares to announce itself as pivotal. Then again, maybe every education’s just a long string of turning points, and a crisp diploma belies a messy soup of impressions. But I can say this: College surrounded me with ruthless ladder-climbers and dazzling dreamers. It taught me how some people saw the world as a series of rooms getting smaller and smaller, and that they’d never feel safe until they could shut others out. But it also gave me books as ballast, generous professors as guides, close friends as refuge.
Over time, I learned that no institution, or its traditions, is innocent; you can’t separate places from the people who built them. Yale has some of the most beautiful libraries in the world. It also houses its students in buildings named after slave-owners. In the new millennium and, we believe, more progressive times, it’s easy to be fooled into a toxic fantasy: there’s a pure meritocracy, and may the best man win. Maybe The Emperor’s Clubhad tried to warn me years ago that there’s no such thing. Being chosen makes you a beneficiary of luck, and often conspiracy, not justice. I learned smaller lessons too, little strategies for living. How to armor myself by being arch; how to shake hands. How to get the measure of—if not always the better of—my fear. Eventually, it stopped bothering me when my parents would visit, wondering aloud how anyone could be unhappy in a place like this.
For my money, The Emperor’s Club stumbles upon its smartest image early in its runtime. Mr. Hundert gazes down at a cheap snow globe of the Parthenon, small enough to fit into his hand. “It’s smaller than I remember,” he jokes. Ultimately, this movie can’t help but rebuild the old myth. It restores Mr. Hundert to his classroom, that sun-dappled sanctuary he built for moral and intellectual thought. But this is the closest the movie comes to deconstructing its genre and questioning its ideals. Your most closely held ideals become commodities, kitsch objects; your temple becomes a tourist trap. Hundert begins, in that moment, to shrink.
That’s what makes those middle scenes so hard to watch: those shapeless years where Hundert’s good faith doesn’t pay off, when he loses his students and then St. Benedict’s entirely. He’s a true believer. But he’s surrounded by, and raises up, such hollow men: swaggering suits who memorize the Ancients’ aphorisms and wear them lightly, using them as calling cards at the watering holes of the wealthy. Let’s be kind to Mr. Hundert: by the end of The Emperor’s Club, none of his students seem the worse for wear. That he carries on, damned by that faint praise, is one of the sorrows this movie can’t shake.
The prep school drama has died out in Hollywood. Another Jesse Eisenberg movie about elite alienation, The Social Network, marks its grave. Yet Donna Tartt’s novels, full of dark erudition, tell horror stories of star students gone crazy, committing murder. And on the nonfiction side, William Deresiewicz hawks his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite. Now, in any outlet that’ll have him, he warns parents and kids away from the Ivy League. He used to teach at Yale—a real-life, more embittered, Mr. Hundert figure. Meanwhile, the opinion pages’ favorite feuds are the death of the liberal arts, the worth of the humanities, the decline of American higher education.
Hardly anyone remembers The Emperor’s Club, but this was the moment it was born for. Its noncommittal morality tale suits our fretful mood. It’d be a great Rorshach’s blot for the talking heads who war over our halls of learning. The Sedgewick Bells aren’t the ones most in need of our attention, or the most deserving—kids who are brighter, or more giving, or who fall through the cracks, are dealt a rotten hand. And yet we keep an eye on this battle for their souls, suspended between vindication or disappointment, waiting, still, to be surprised.
Sophia Nguyen lives and writes in Cambridge, Massachusetts.