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Emperor’s Club examines virtues and values

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. (BP)–The crass J——: The Movie has remained in the top 10 money-makers after four weeks, and controversial rap performer Eminem’s 8 Mile received praise from reviewers, with box office receipts adding up to $54 million in its first weekend.

Considering that a major portion of the movie-going public seems drawn to loud, raucous and deviant material, is there an audience for a movie whose central theme concerns integrity?

Will righteous obligations be of interest to a generation whose moral revisionists are led by an impeached president, where countless business moguls cop millions for themselves as their employees struggle without, and when a movie actress with a penchant for kleptomania can make jokes about her career in crime while hosting Saturday Night Live?

This had to be a concern for anxious studio heads at Universal when the script for The Emperor’s Club was finally given a go-ahead.

The Emperor’s Club opens Nov. 22. The film, which is attracting positive Oscar buzz for its star, Kevin Kline, and Neil Tolkin’s screenplay, is snagging a comfortable place on many a critic’s Best Lists of 2002. With a salute to films such as Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Mr. Holland’s Opus, the filmmakers examine the place of ethics in the evolution of mankind.

Based on Ethan Canin’s acclaimed short story The Palace Thief, it tells the story of a dedicated educator, William Hundert. This principled classics professor attempts to instill in his pupils an understanding of the past that will serve them in their future. Quoting Cicero, actor Kevin Kline says of his character’s belief system, “To not know what came before you is to be a child forever.”

Kline, who portrays William Hundert, was educated by Benedictine monks during his formative years in St. Louis. He said he related to the film’s premise to that school’s values.

“The film’s theme is very timely,” Kline told Baptist Press. “With what’s going on in the corporate world — and the political arena — the contrast of virtues and values versus expediency and winning at all costs needs to be examined.”

Hundert looks forward to each new class at the exclusive St. Benedict’s Boys High School, helping to convey the need for character. But with the arrival of new student Sedgewick Bell (Emile Hirsch), Hundert finds his cloistered world of tradition and influence upended. Sedgewick is belligerent, argumentative and sneaky. After Hundert visits Sedgewick’s father, however, he discovers the reason for the bad attitude. The father, a pompous, manipulative senator, is a cold and detached man towards his son. Hundert suddenly relates to the obstinate teenager, due to having an equally unapproachable father.

Determined to find a way to reach Sedgewick, Hundert unsettles him by offering a friendly truce. After a noticeable change in Sedgewick’s outward attitude, Hundert slowly begins to bend his rules in order to win Sedgewick’s trust.

One compromise on Hundert’s part leads to another. Soon the teacher’s noble efforts to mold the student’s character are, in fact, having a more profound effect on his own. Hundert, for all the right reasons, finds himself making a choice that would haunt him for the next 25 years.

“The film causes us to examine our own ethical beliefs while, at the same time, indicates how difficult it is to live by high standards,” Kline said. “But most importantly, I think it raises questions. It’s a film, and a subject matter, people will discuss. At least, I hope so.”

“In a way, it’s a fairytale,” said producer Marc Abraham. “This kid is under the spell of a wicked father. And there’s this other father figure who has the opportunity to break that spell. But the tragedy is that rather than finding redemption, Sedgewick remains under the wicked spell.”

As the film progresses, we find Sedgewick grown into manhood, and now seeking a seat in the U.S. Senate, only to have stayed the course of moral apathy, convinced that image is enough.

“The parallel to what’s going on in our society, including the political scene, is clear,” said director Michael Hoffman. “It’s interesting that invariably, Democrats say it’s about George Bush and Republicans say it’s about Bill Clinton.”

The filmmakers waived their normally large salaries to work on the project, expressing their passion for the film. Both the production’s craftsmen and artists wanted to be connected to such a positive treatment of the need for social values.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: THE EMPEROR’S CLUB 1.

    About the Author

  • Phil Boatwright