“How will history remember you?”
That is the question that Mr. Hundert (Kevin Kline ) puts to the boys of St. Benedict’s Prep School in his classics classroom. He asks himself the same question when he meets these students again 25 years later.
The secondary question is: “Does history give us an accurate picture of those it remembers, or are only accomplishments recalled without regard to how they are achieved?”
No Dead Poets here
For those of you who think this movie is a continuation of Dead Poets Society, you could not be further from the truth. Both tell the story of an inspiring prep school teacher, but that is where the comparisons end. Hundert teaches character along with history while Dead Poets’ Robin Williams concentrated on his inspiring message of “seize the day.” Hundert regards “not just living but living rightly” as central to his philosophy. He preaches that there are certain universal truths that can be gleaned from the stories of ancient civilizations, and this is what he wants to bring to life for his students.
Who and what you know
In his class we meet Sedgewick Bell, the son of a U.S. senator, who resists Hundert’s methods at first, but then is inspired by his teacher and soars to the top of the class.
Hundert sees a bit of himself in this boy, as he was the son of a famous scholar and lives in his shadow. He even commits a few minor transgressions which he thinks will prove helpful to the boy, though they backfire, and he wonders whether he’s done more harm than good.
Sedgewick coasts his way through the prep school after this, secures a seat at Yale, and becomes a successful businessman. But it becomes clear the man is living on his charm and on the name of his father. He believes (and he may be right) that history will remember his name and accomplishments regardless of how he achieves them—and this proves more important to him than any code of ethics.
I saw this movie with my wife, an elementary special ed teacher, and she noted that most teachers undergo a crisis of conscience about whether or not they have failed their students. Kline’s character does too, but in this case his students are those people who become presidents and CEO’s, who mould and shape the world.
If this Bell sounded familiar…
In the end, the film leaves us with more questions than answers, a good thing. But it pushes us hard on the consequences of privilege, and that is appropriate. We need look no further than the Congress or the White House to find the beneficiaries of a father’s good name in business and politics (and George W., like the fictional Sedgewick, went to Yale and was well-liked by his contemporaries).
The Emperor’s Club is a wonderful movie with dialogue that is funny, smart, and sophisticated. Kline is outstanding as Hundert, and Emile Hirsch (from The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys) is crafty as the mischievous Sedgewick Bell. Have dinner with friends AFTER the movie to sort out the ethical questions that will certainly arise.