Dead Poets Society

  • Title: Dead Poets Society
  • Director: Peter Weir
  • Date: 1989
  • Studio: Touchstone Pictures
  • Genre: Drama
  • Cast: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
  • Format: Widescreen, Color
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“In my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again. You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” — John Keating

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice, but the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said ‘most men lead lives of quiet desperation’, don’t be resigned to that.”  — John Keating

Dead Poet’s Society is an extra-ordinary movie about an extra-ordinary teacher. English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) is the teacher most of us always wanted to have, some of us were lucky enough to have, and if you’ve ever taught or tried to teach — the teacher we strive to be. Keating doesn’t simply read to his students, or have them read poetry aloud. Rather, he brings poetry alive by bringing his students outside the classroom – to look at the pictures of past students and remind the current ones how short life can be; or having them read a line of poetry aloud then kick a ball (again outside). Whether it’s an exercise in what creates conformity or having students stand on his desk to get a view — Keating not only knows how to reach his students, and turn them into admirers of the great poets, but he touches and changes lives.

However, as one might guess in a movie set at a conservative boys-only prep school in the 1950s, where all the boys have had their entire lives mapped out from day one by their parents, Keating’s unconventional style is noticed and Not Approved by the conservative staff. It may have gone OK, but for the life of one student, Neil Perry. Neil is, at heart, an artsy type. At the opening of the movie, Neil’s father decides he’s taking “too many activities” and forces him to drop the school annual (yearbook). From the look on Neil’s face, the audience can tell it’s his favorite activity, but Neil caves and does what Daddy tells him to because he feels he has no choice. Later it’s Neil who revives Keating’s “Dead Poets Society”, a social club for reading poetry, writing poetry, and Carpe Diem or “Seize the Day”, the unofficial anthem of the film.

Neil, later discovers a nearby school is holding open tryouts for a play and as he’s always wanted to try acting, Neil goes ahead and tries out, gets the part, and forges the necessary permission slips. He keeps the entire deal secret from his over-bearing, conservative, egotistical father. His father does find out, though, and forbids Neil from having anything to do with “that acting nonsense” – he’s to become a doctor. Neil doesn’t know what to do – so he sees Keating. Keating tells him he has to talk to his father again, to explain his passion, that he wants to try the stage, just once. Later, Neil lies about talking to his father and goes to the play. As Puck in A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, Neil is a smashing success. But his father sees him on stage and gets angry. He takes Neil home and tells him that not only would there be none of this acting business, but he’s pulling him from school and he will be sent to a military academy. That most certainly sounds like hell to Neil – he kills himself.

After Neil’s death, the school blames everything on Keating, who’s fired. But the last image of the film, of the Dead Poet’s Society boys, calling Keating “Captain, my Captain”, and standing on their desks in a salute is breath-taking, and will make you cry.

Peter Weir’s direction is stunning in this movie. From lovely, beautiful, monochromatic shots — such as the boys running off into the blue, misty, night sky and literally disappearing; to the white, snowy scene right after Neil’s death, when his roommate, Todd, throws up and runs off out of grief; there are plenty of gorgeous shots of the beautiful scenery in this movie (in Delaware according to the credits), but Weir also films people with a deft hand. He uses light and shadow well. He brings out emotion, beautifully, in a film with basically all male characters (there are a few girlfriends here or there, but that’s it).

Dead Poet’s Society is a film that changes whenever you watch it. Initially, (and yes, I saw the film when it came out in 1989), it seemed like Neil’s father was a complete jerk, and completely to blame for Neil’s death – and the way it was blamed on Mr. Keating. Last time I watched this film, when I first bought the DVD (another $5.00 special no less!) – I detected a hint of anti-homosexuality, theorizing that Mr. Perry’s hatred of acting and the stage, and anything artsy at all, was actually because actors were thought to be “all gay”, especially in the 1950s. Thus, his attacks on Neil’s interests in writing and acting. This time around, I noticed Neil’s complete inability to talk to or challenge his father – though his father certainly didn’t make any sort of conversation possible. And the treatment of Keating is still really horrible and unfair. It’s a testament to the director’s skill that he can get so many different reads from a single movie.

And it goes without saying, that Robin Williams is brilliant as the unconventional Mr. Keating. Robert Sean Leonard is brilliant as the tormented and artistic Neal. And a very, very, VERY young Ethan Hawke gives a wonderful performance as Neal’s new roommate Todd. All the performances in the film are stunning, even the characters you dislike such as Neil’s father, and some of the more conventional teachers at the Welton Academy.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 4 Stars
Next Film: Die Another Day (James Bond)