“A Novelist In Business School” is a series about putting my literary arts brain through formal management training.
There are two parts to this one — first, my thoughts on the use of films as teaching aids. Second, my feelings about a specific movie that was recently used as a teaching aid in one of my classes.
Don’t Use Commercial Motion Pictures as Teaching Aids
There are exceptions to this rule. Film Studies classes, any of the performing arts, any course that has to do with film production or theater or even music are exempt from this rule. But for anyone else you are relying on Hollywood to make your point. Classroom movies were marginally acceptable up through about junior high school, when sometimes the teacher needed an hour or so to grade papers or take a break. But in graduate-level classes this is insane. If you have something to tell us, please tell us. Or ask us to read the novel. Yes, it will take longer, but we’ll get so much more out of it.
Especially in this case.
Now on to the Emperor’s Club.
For those of you who missed The Emperor’s Club when it was in the theaters (2002) I’ll give you a synopsis:
Kevin Kline is a teacher at a boarding school for boys in the 1970s. His character has a name, but at no point was that character convincing enough to let me see anything other than Kevin Kline. Our protagonist teaches “Western Civilization”, by which he means the ancient Greeks and Romans. As a three-year student of Latin and the Latin Club Senior Consul of my high school, I’m on board so far.
His class in 1972 is mostly made up of uninteresting stereotypes. These are prep school boys with rich parents, and they act like it. Their tiny academic world is turned upside down with the arrival of a wayward son of a senator. This new boy is a different stereotype! He’s the troubled son of a senator who acts out — the rebel boy.
Mr. Kline decides to take the wayward son of a senator under his wing. He challenges this young man to work harder, to seek academic success. It works for most of a year. You see, each year this school has a “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest, where students compete by taking tests about ancient history, culminating in an event where the three top competitors answer questions in front of the whole school. If you get a question wrong, you’re out.
Mr. Kline decides to give this wayward son of a senator a chance, by changing his grade on one of his tests from an A- to an A+, thus allowing him to be one of the final three.
And the wayward son of a senator cheats. Mr. Kline knows he is cheating, but the Headmaster tells him to let it go so the Senator will give money to the school. Instead of calling the boy on it, he asks him a question that wasn’t from the materials covered in the class. Wayward son boy gets it wrong, other boy gets it right, score one for… Asking rigged questions, I guess? Mr. Kline confronts the boy in his dorm room afterward. The boy admits to cheating and Mr. Kline agrees not to tell anyone.
Twenty some odd years pass and the wayward son is now a rich man. He is willing to make a sizeable donation to his alma mater, but only if Mr. Kline, now in old person makeup, will let him stage a “Mr. Julius Caesar” rematch. So everyone flies out to the wayward son’s island, where the rematch is being held.
During the “Mr. Old Julius Caesar” competition Mr. Kline realizes that this boy, now a man, is cheating again, but this time using technology. Mr. Kline again asks him a question that isn’t from the course materials, but this time it is one that the guy should have known. It’s asking about a plaque that hangs over Mr. Kline’s door in his classroom. Everyone in the class but Mr. Cheater knows the answer. He gets it wrong and the same guy who won the first time wins the second time. After graciously losing the contest, Mr. Cheater announces he’s running for Senate. The irony! A guy who cheats on tests about the Roman republic is going to be a senator. Can you sense the irony because we can beat you over the head with it a bit more if you like!
This time the cheater finds Mr. Kline in the bathroom, and Mr. Kline tells the cheater he knew he was cheating and gives a wan lecture about personal virtue. The cheater say’s he’ll do whatever it takes to get what he wants and someone flushes the toilet. It’s the cheater’s son! Oh no!
So, here are my problems with this movie.
First, we are told that Mr. Kline’s character is a moral, upright, just, and good man. He tells us this. He demonstrates his virtuous living whenever it doesn’t matter to the plot. He teaches classical virtues from the capital-C Classics.
But he artificially inflated the grade of the wayward boy to get him into this Mr. Julius Caesar competition. Then he asked an unfair question that was specifically designed to let someone else win out over the wayward boy. Then he withheld the truth about the wayward boy cheating to ensure that the wayward boy’s dad gave the school money.
And then, twenty-some-odd years later, he does it all again. Exactly. He agrees to the rematch, he discovers the Cheater is cheating, and he cheats so the cheater will lose. But he doesn’t renounce him as a cheater, because he wants Senator Cheater to give money to the school. Nobody learned anything or grew in any way over the course of this movie.
The film makes some attempt at redeeming Mr. Kline by showing that all his other students are leaders now. Captains of Industry, leaders in the world of academia and politics. But…of course they are. These are boarding school boys. They all come from rich families. That would have been impressive had he taught them in some inner-city public school.
The Emperor’s Club also has no idea what to do with women. It fails the Bechdel Test entirely. Granted, this is a movie about a man teaching at a boarding school for boys, so there are just a few female roles floating in a sea of masculinity, but they are all handled terribly. In an early scene, the teenage boys row across the lake to hang out with some teenage girls, who are all immediately willing to strip naked and go skinny dipping with these boys they met thirty seconds earlier. But, uh oh! A Nun just walked up! Comedy! By the way, the credits list the characters from this scene as:
- The Nun
- Blonde Girl
- Real Redhead
But the movie isn’t done underestimating women yet! Mr. Kline lusts after and eventually marries a woman much younger than himself, whose entire character seems to be centered around adoring him. Mr. Cheater has an attractive wife whose entire role is putting her hands on her two sons’ shoulders.
It’s like the writers had some vague perception that women exist but isn’t sure if they have feelings or motivation like men do. They take care to show that the modern version of this all-boys school now admits girls as well, but not one of those girls gets to say anything more than her name during a roll call.
Now Let’s Talk About this Movie As an Ethics Class Teaching Aid
The module to which this movie was attached centers on honesty. We see in the movie that the wayward son of a senator lies to become a senator. The voiceover tells us that we shouldn’t be surprised by this, but that we should not let one failure to stop a cheater from obtaining public office make us feel bad compared to all the doctors and lawyers we helped.
But what if we ignore the plot and instead focus on the things Mr. Kline says during his classroom scenes? Well, then we would get some platitudes about Plato. The words in this movie are very nice and well chosen. They are just entirely undermined by the plot and made ridiculous by the movie’s ineptitude towards women.