Hello again, Mr. Chips

Times Staff Writer

The Duke of Wellington has a lot to answer for.

Ever since the man who conquered Napoleon insisted that “the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” there’s been no end of books -- and later films -- dealing with the doings of men and boys at the kind of snooty private schools most people would be lucky to get into on visiting day.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 23, 2002 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 12 inches; 439 words Type of Material: Correction
Film writing credit -- Neil Tolkin, the screenwriter of the film “The Emperor’s Club,” was misidentified as Michael Tolkin in the review in Friday’s Calendar. Also, in the review’s credit box, his first name was misspelled as Neal.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 26, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 318 words Type of Material: Correction
“Emperor’s Club” photo -- A caption accompanying a photo in Friday’s Calendar review of “The Emperor’s Club” was inaccurate. The picture does not show Edward Herrmann and Kevin Kline welcoming transferring student Emile Hirsch. It shows the actors in a scene in which Hirsch is receiving a diploma.

Films from “Tom Brown’s Schooldays” to “Goodbye Mr. Chips” (not a Famous Amos biopic) to “Dead Poets Society” have taken us behind elite and ivied walls on both sides of the Atlantic to show off the latest in blazer styles and illustrate what makes a difference in a young lad’s life and what does not.

“The Emperor’s Club” (the reference is to Julius Caesar, not Wellington’s nemesis) is the latest in this long, polite line. It’s well crafted by director Michael Hoffman, not painful to sit through, and even contains some 21st century plot twists courtesy of screenwriter Michael Tolkin and Ethan Canin, who wrote the original short story, “The Palace Thief.” But unless you have a predisposition toward this kind of thing, none of that is going to matter much.


Because finally not even having Kevin Kline as your star and gifted newcomer Emile Hirsch as the young gentleman who is the focus of all eyes is enough to budge this film from the exact middle of the road. Though the message of “The Emperor’s Club” is not precisely what you might expect, it’s an awfully familiar one nevertheless, a theme that’s too comfortable for its own good.

Though the film has both a brief opening and an extended closing section set in the present day, most of it is situated a quarter of a century ago, in the storied halls of the mythical St. Benedict’s, a school where, as someone in the film notes, “a future who’s who of law, industry, finance and higher education” are gently but firmly being molded into men.

Assistant headmaster William Hundert (Kline) is happy to have a hand in all of that, to be a key player in a school whose motto is “Not for oneself.” An old-fashioned, even prissy type who believes “a man’s character is his fate,” he likes to point his boys to the straight and narrow, going so far as to suggest they stay off the grass with a platitudinous, “Follow the path where great men have walked.”

Hundert is also a committed classics professor, the kind of inspired teacher who gets his class to dress up in togas and like it. He is also in charge of the school’s Mr. Julius Caesar contest, a rigorous test of knowledge that all the boys yearn to triumph in. He has a faculty pal in Charles (Rob Morrow) and a close albeit platonic relationship with Elizabeth (Embeth Davitz), the wife of a colleague.

An Eden like this wouldn’t even begin to be dramatically interesting without a snake, and one soon enters in the form of transferring student Sedgewick Bell (Hirsch), son of West Virginia Sen. Hyram Bell (Harris Yulin).

It’s a given that anyone coming from West Virginia with the name Sedgewick is going to have some issues, but this young man is a genuine disturber of the peace, refusing to take anything seriously and mocking everything St. Benedict’s and Hundert hold dear.

Though an out-of-control brat who has contempt for authority is hardly an original conceit, actor Hirsch is talented enough to hold our interest, at least initially, as a character who instigates pranks, introduces his roommates to Oui magazine, and is charismatic enough to gain quite a following.

Hundert, who initially dismisses Sedgewick’s attitude as “new school bravado,” decides at one point to attempt to take him under his wing, to wage a battle for his immortal soul, so to speak. The question of whether he ‘s converting the heathen or having his ideals compromised by an infidel is where the film’s dramatic center lies.


Interesting as this dilemma may sound, the problem with “The Emperor’s Club” is that it’s neither substantial enough to overcome its short-story roots nor convincing enough to make us care which way the issue is resolved. While the Duke of Wellington would likely have enjoyed the proceedings, it’s not clear who else will.


‘The Emperor’s Club’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexual content.


Times guidelines: It’s genteel throughout.

Kevin Kline ... William Hundert

Emile Hirsch ... Sedgewick Bell

Embeth Davidtz ... Elizabeth


Rob Morrow ... James Ellerby

Edward Herrmann ...Woodbridge

Universal Pictures and Beacon Pictures present a Sidney Kimmel Entertainment / Longfellow Pictures and Liveplanet production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Michael Hoffman. Producers Andrew Karsch, Marc Abraham. Executive producers Sean Bailey, Cooper Layne, Armyan Bernstein, Thomas A. Bliss, Sidney Kimmel, Eric Newman. Screenplay Neal Tolkin, based on the short story ‘The Palace Thief’ by Ethan Canin. Cinematographer Lajos Koltai. Editor Harvey Rosenstock. Costumes Cynthia Flynt. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Patrizia Von Brandenstein. Art director Dennis Bradford. Set decorator George DeTitta Jr. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

In general release.