The Emperor’s Club (2002) is a powerful, inspirational movie written by Neil Tolkin based on the short story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin. The film presents us with two diametrically opposed characters: William Hundred, a disciplined and very principled classics professor, William Hundert, and Sedgwick Bell, an iconoclastic, arrogant, and ambitious student who will stop at nothing to win. While the first character values integrity and virtue (Hundert is fond of quoting Socrates: “It is not living that is important… but living rightly.”), the other disdains it. At the end of the film, which occurs many years later after graduation, when the characters are now in their 30s, Hundred catches Sedgwick cheating to win a history trivia competition. They run into one another in the bathroom; Hundert confronts Sedgwick in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, that is so relevant to what we are witnessing in America’s current leadership:
“I have no doubt you’re more clever than I am and would find some way to discredit me. ‘We live in an age’ as Seneca said, ‘where successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.’ But as a student of history, I know there will come a moment after the noise and the parties, not tonight but sometime when you will be forced like all men to look at yourself, really look at yourself, Sedgwick. And in that moment you will be confronted by the emptiness of a life lived without principle and without virtue. And for that, I pity you.”
Sedgwick looks at his former history teacher with scorn, and snarls “Can I say, Mr. Hundert, who gives a shit. Who out there gives a shit.. honestly… about your principles and your Seneca and your virtues. I mean, look at you. What do you have to show for it all?… I live in the real world. Where people lie and cheat and scratch to get what they want. And I’m okay with that, so… I’m going to go out there and win that election. I’ll worry about my contribution later.”
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For further reading: The Emperor’s Club: The Shooting Script by Neil Tolkin