By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
Right off the bat, I want to say that “The Emperor’s Club” is one of the best classics-related films I’ve ever seen. Every classicist should watch it! The story is set mostly at a fictional boys’ prep school, St. Benedict’s Academy, near Washington, D.C. Among its main characters are Mr. Hundert, the passionate classics teacher, Sedgewick, the arrogant son of a politician, and the Indian-American boy Deepak. In the movie the school holds an event called the Mr. Julius Caesar Contest, in which the competitors answer classics-related questions.
First, let me talk about why I gave this film a well-deserved five stars! For one, the plot was perfect. The way I see it, the film is a struggle to mold Sedgewick’s character. The viewer sees this struggle and wonders “what will prevail, good or evil?” While the teacher, Mr. Hundert, is an excellent influence on Sedgewick, teaching him how valuable classics can be in a student’s education, his father despises education and would prefer that his son become a crooked politician like himself. The following is a bit of dialogue from the film, when Mr. Hundert meets with Sedgewick’s father to report on his son’s behavior:
Hundert: Sir, it’s my job to mold your son’s character, and I think if…
Senator Bell: Mold him? Jesus God in Heaven, son. You’re not gonna mold my boy. Your job is to teach my son. You teach him his times tables. Teach him why the world is round. Teach him who killed who and when and where. That is your job. You, sir, will not mold my son. I will mold him.
In spite of his father’s influence, Sedgewick does turn into a diligent student and he participates in the Mr. Julius Caesar Contest. His father’s influence on him, however, remains strong, and he cheats by using crib notes. Mr. Hundert sees him doing it and so asks him about something not covered in class: who was Hamilcar Barca? He knew that the other contestant, Deepak, would know the answer because of his interest in ancient military history. Sedgewick loses the game, and Hundert is despondent, thinking that he has failed to mold Sedgewick’s character.
The movie then skips ahead many years. Sedgewick is now a powerful politician, and he plans to donate a large sum of money to the school, but he agrees to do it only if Hundert agrees to hold another Mr. Julius Caesar contest with his old class. The viewer is led to think that Sedgewick wants to show Mr. Hundert that he has changed, but he cheats again. Just as he had the previous time, Mr. Hundert realizes the trick and asks Sedgewick a question about Shutruk Nahunte, a Persian ruler, one of whose famous quotations had been displayed prominently in their classroom back when they attended the school: “I am Shutruk Nahunte, King of Anshand and Sussa, Sovereign of the land of Elam. I destroyed Sippar, took the stele of Niran-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god.” Once again, Sedgewick doesn’t know the answer, but the diligent Deepak does, and the latter wins the Caesar contest again. After the contest, Hundert confronts Sedgewick. He says: “I’m a teacher, Sedgewick. And I failed you – as a teacher. But I will give you one last lecture, if I may. All of us, at some point, are forced to look at ourselves in the mirror and see who we really are. And when that day comes for you, Sedgewick, you will be confronted with a life lived without virtue, without principle. And for that I pity you. End of lesson!”
In a remarkable scene at the end of the movie, Hundert looks back at his life and realizes that it has in fact been worthwhile. He failed Sedgewick, but he was successful with many others. In another captivating scene, the winner of the Mr. Julius Caesar contest says: “A great teacher has little external history to record. His life goes over into other lives. These men are pillars in the intimate structure of our schools. They are more essential than its stones or beams, and they will continue to be a kindling force and a revealing power in our lives.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
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