Michael Hoffman, director of “The Emperor’s Club,” recently spoke with EthicsDaily.com about ancient Rome, Pyrrhic victories and how both relate to his new movie about living with character, virtue and integrity.
Hoffman, who lives in Idaho with his wife and three children, was staying at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. He was busy promoting the film about a classics teacher struggling to do the right thing while molding the character of his students. EthicsDaily.com caught up with Hoffman on his cell phone as he was finishing breakfast.
Hoffman had just read a story about Sen. Robert Byrd from West Virginia on the front page of that morning’s New York Times. He urged his caller to read the story because “it sort of echoes what the movie’s about.”
Consulting the Times, the story’s headline jumped out: “Byrd, at 85, Fills the Forum With Romans and Wrath.” It quoted Byrd’s speech from the Senate floor the day before, in which he referred to Helvidius Priscus, a first-century Roman senator who spoke his mind to the chagrin of Emperor Vespasian, who told Priscus to stop.
“And so both did their parts,” the story quoted Byrd as saying. “Helvidius Priscus spoke his mind; the emperor Vespasian killed him. In this effeminate age it is instructive to read of courage. There are members of the U.S. Senate and House who are terrified apparently if the president of the United States tells them, urges them, to vote a certain way that may be against their belief.”
“There are points at which you’ve compromised yourself so much, the win is really Pyrrhic,” said Hoffman, referring to decision-making in general and key decisions made by the film’s characters in particular.
Hoffman, a Rhodes scholar, then quoted Pyrrhus: “Another victory like that and we’re done for.” Laughs from around his breakfast table could be heard on the other end of the phone.
Hoffman said it seemed like the United States has “more cost than benefit” in terms of some of its individual and corporate behavior. He mentioned Enron, Tyco and other corporate scandals as examples of absent integrity, and then quoted Roman philosopher Seneca to demonstrate the relevance of ancient thinkers to modern times:
“We live in an age where successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.”
“I was shocked by how relevant and contemporary these Greek and Roman ideas strike me,” Hoffman said. “Audiences are really responding to this movie. It seems to be issues that people are interested in. People feel like these issues need to be addressed.”
The film was an official selection at numerous film festivals, but it made just over $4 million in its opening weekend. Of course, it was competing against “Die Another Day” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”
But it’s also the “mission movie” of the month at www.moviemission.com, a Web site that encourages people to put their money where their entertainment preferences are and thereby lead Hollywood to produce more redemptive movies.
Hoffman grew up being interested in the classics, in history, in ideas.
“History has continued to be an avocation for me,” he said. “It’s a big part of my life. I’m very drawn to the ideas and values that have grown up organically out of the culture.”
Academy Award winner Kevin Kline, who plays classics teacher Mr. Hundert, sent Hoffman the script because Kline knew of his interest in the classics. The two had worked together on 1991’s “Soapdish” and 1999’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Hoffman said he had a good grasp of Roman history from Julius Caesar forward, but he “brushed up” on the Republic to prepare for shooting the movie.
“I did go back and do more reading,” he said. He also listened to audio-taped lectures on philosophy and history as he was traveling for the movie.
“Kevin felt very passionate about this character,” Hoffman said. “He really sees Hundert as the last bastion of American civilization.” Furthermore, “Kevin is a bit of monk, or an aesthetic,” so he had a particular affinity for the educator Hundert.
Hoffman shared some of his own educational philosophy, stating that before World War II, education, character and success were linked. “Character is tied up inexorably with success,” he said.
But after the war and in the last several decades, people became less interested in character and more interested in personality and image. Character and success were no longer hitched to each other. One could be financially successful but lacking character, and that was enough.
But that’s a Pyrrhic victory. Too many of those, and one is done for. That’s what “The Emperor’s Club” considers, suggests and concludes.
The movie “takes these issues of character and ethics and puts them at the center of a piece of art-entertainment,” Hoffman said. “I hope it gives (moviegoers) things to think about, to talk about when they leave the theater.”
Cliff Vaughn is BCE’s associate director for EthicsDaily.com.
Read the review of “The Emperor’s Club.”
Visit the movie’s official Web site.