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Film / The Emperor's Club

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The Emperor's Club is a 2002 drama film directed by Michael Hoffman, starring Kevin Kline and Emile Hirsch.

Based on Ethan Canin's short story "The Palace Thief", the film centers around teacher William Hundert (Kline) and his students at a fictional boys' prep school, St. Benedict's Academy, near Washington, D.C. It follows the relationship between Hundert and a rebellious student named Sedgewick Bell (Hirsch), which turns into a power struggle that spans literal decades over a classics trivia competition.

This movie provides examples of:

  • An Aesop: It is better to build something than to take something is basically repeated throughout the movie.
  • Artistic License – History: Hundert ultimately ensures Sedgewick's defeat in the first Mr. Julius Caesar competition by asking him who Hamilcar Barca was, a question which only Deepak can answer since Hamilcar did not feature in the assigned class reading (see Chekhov's Gun below). While it is possible to omit Hamilcar from a cursory Roman history, it is unlikely in a class emphasizing this subject - Hamilcar Barca was a major figure in the First Punic War and the influential father of Hannibal Barca, who nearly destroyed Rome in the Second Punic War.
  • Bittersweet Ending: After receiving a "The Reason You Suck" Speech, Hundert has to accept that he has failed to influence Sedgewick into becoming a moral and principled adult - and one who is on track to becoming a US Senator. However even if Sedgewick's classmates are blind to his flaws and support his political career, they appear to have taken Hundert's lessons on board and clearly hold their teacher in high regard.
  • Book Ends: The movie begins on the first day of class with Hundert making a student, Martin Blythe, recite the inscription (English-translated) on a plaque. Decades later, Hundert has Blythe's son do the same.
  • Broken Pedestal: Happens to Sedgewick's son when he hears his dad boast about being a cheater to Hundert in the bathroom.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Hundert relies on these to trip up Sedgewick in both Mr. Julius Caesar competitions.
    • In the original competition, the final question is "Who is Hamilcar Barca?" Deepak had learned about him through extra-curricular reading.
    • The second competition ends with the question, "Who is Shutruk-Nakhunte?" referring to the plaque Hundert had a student read on the first day of class... which Sedgewick had not been present for.
    • When Mr. Hundert quits he is told by a board member that he will always be welcome back. The movie ends with Mr. Hundert going back to being a teacher at St. Benedict's.
  • Class Clown: Sedgewick Bell is a rebellious troublemaker who, when asked to name Roman emperors, says he only knows seven and then names the seven dwarves. Another time, he gets the whole class to slam their books shut at the same time to startle their teacher.
  • Cool Teacher / Stern Teacher: William Hundert.
  • Failed a Spot Check: While Sedgewick did miss the lecture about Shutruk-Nakhunte, he still walked past the plaque about the emperor every day for years and never cared enough to read it.
  • Generation Xerox: Sedgewick becomes more or less a carbon copy of his father.
    • The movie ends with Mr. Hundert meeting Martin Blythe's son, also named Martin Blythe.
  • Graceful Loser: The second time Sedgwick loses the competition, he acts ruefully amused and congratulates Deepak.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Shutruk-Nakhunte is used an example of a conqueror who built nothing and is now virtually forgotten. The fact he lived almost three thousand years ago is all but ignored.
  • Not Quite the Right Thing: Hundert removed a promising and good-natured student from his earned spot on trivia team to give it to Segewick in hopes of inspiring him to be a better person. Hundert and the student, Blythe, are still bothered by it decades later, and Hundert only comes clean to Blythe after all that time. Blythe does forgive him, however, and at the end he sends his son to Hundert's class, and Hundert sees him waving outside.
  • Passed-Over Promotion: Mr. Hundbert is upset when he is passed over for the headmaster's job in favor of the much younger James Ellerby (an innovative fundraiser and social expert).
  • Right Behind Me: Sedgewick tells Hundert how he thinks lying and cheating are acceptable methods of getting ahead, and that Hundert's principles (which Sedgewick publicly endorses) mean nothing "in the real world". Cue toilet flush and out steps Sedgewick's son, looking at his hypocritical father with disgust.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Sedgewick gives one to Hundert in the men's room about how he's just a teacher when he's a CEO on the way to becoming a Senator.
  • Schoolyard Bully All Grown Up: A variation: Sedgewick claims to have turned over a new leaf when he grows up, but Hundert discovers that he's just as much of a dishonest cheater as ever.
  • Serious Business: The "Mister Julius Caesar" competition is this to the students and former students, even to adulthood.
  • Token Minority: Deepak is the only student in 1976 (by the 2000s, the school is co-ed and more diverse) who isn't a white male.
  • Xanatos Gambit: During the second historical knowledge competition, Sedgewick knows that whether he wins or loses, he'll still have an opportunity to grandstand for his wealthy former classmates to support his Senate bid.