Peter Weir is a filmmaker fascinated by outsider protagonists thrust into strange environments that they must navigate, be it an Australian journalist in 1965 Jakarta (The Year of Living Dangerously) or a veteran Philadelphia cop hiding out in Amish country (Witness) or a headstrong inventor that moves his family from the United States to the jungles of Central America (The Mosquito Coast). Dead Poets Society (1989) continues this thematic preoccupation with a shy student spending his senior year of high school at a conservative all-boys prep boarding school in the 1950s where he falls in with a tight-knit group of colorful students and is in turn taught by the new English teacher whose unconventional methods are alien to the traditional ways of the school.
Right from the opening credits, Weir immerses us in the stuffy, authoritative atmosphere of Welton Academy where its students literally carry its ideals a.k.a. the Four Pillars (tradition, honor, discipline, excellence) on banners into chapel with all the pomp and circumstance befitting such an esteemed institution. Like new student Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), we are immersed in this foreign world and watch as he tries to adapt to and make sense of it all. He starts off as an inexperienced blank slate for Neil Parry (Robert Sean Leonard), the artistically-inclined student (despite his strict father’s wishes), and his friends – Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), the strictly-by-the-book type, Gerard Pitts (James Waterston), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), the romantic, and Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), the rebel who’s up for anything – to imprint upon. They even have their own version of the Four Pillars: travesty, horror, decadence, and excrement.
Their first class with Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) is a memorable one as he takes them out of the classroom and into the hall. He quotes Walt Whitman, evokes the phrase carpe diem (Latin for “seize the day”) and gets them to look at old photographs of students in the trophy case to give an indication of their own mortality and to inspire them to also seize the day. For a brief but pivotal spell, Keating gets his students to think about English literature in a different way than they are normally accustomed to and this starts with having them rip out the introduction to their textbook that posits poetry should be tracked like a graph with its two axises being the poem’s perfection rated against its importance, which then determines its greatness. Through humor, Keating exposes the absurdity of applying a mathematical formula to art. He forces his students to think about poetry differently through the shock tactic of tearing out pages of the book thereby tearing down their pre-conceived notions of how poetry should be studied.
He hopes that they will learn to think for themselves. How could you not be inspired by someone like that at such an impressionable age? However, Keating is not saying that all other disciplines are less worthy – on the contrary, they are often crucial to our day-to-day existence – but a love of literature is good for the soul and enriches our lives. In their own respective ways, Neil and Keating are instrumental in bringing Todd out of his shell – whether he wants to or not. The last 30 minutes of Dead Poets Society take on a considerably darker tone as the boys are forced to grow up fast when faced with the death of one of their own. They must make some important choices that will change their future at Welton as they must decide if they should stick together or save their own skins as the ramifications could affect their future academic career. Weir takes great care to show how this death affects not just the boys but Keating as well in a deeply profound way.
Ethan Hawke plays Todd as a wide-eyed innocent, meek in temperament and soft-spoken with the hint of a nervous stutter. At times, Todd is so quiet that those around him are often barely aware he’s in the room and Weir conveys this visually by the character’s placement in a given shot. Along comes Keating who forces Todd out of his shell as only a charismatic teacher can with the rousing battle cry of carpe diem. It is this ideal that he tries to instill in Todd and his classmates and Hawke does a nice job over the course of Dead Poets Society showing how his character struggles with it. The moment where Keating forces Todd to let go and create a poem spontaneously is a powerful one as we are witness to a personal epiphany and an emotional breakthrough.
Robert Sean Leonard delivers what is arguably the most powerful performance in the film as a student who starts out full of passion for the written word thanks to Keating’s influence and this inspires him to get involved in theater. It is his idea to resurrect the Dead Poets Society and the other boys follow him because he is a natural, charismatic leader. As the film progresses, Neil’s personal arc takes on increasingly dramatic dimensions and Leonard is excellent at showing how the pressure that his father (Kurtwood Smith) exerts takes its toll. What was once a promising future eventually becomes a prison imposed by his father and Neil feels that there is only way out. As a result, he becomes a tragic figure and a potent warning of what happens when you buck the rigid system structure imposed by parents, authorities, etc.
Robin Williams is quite good and very believable as an English teacher. Weir reins him in and not once does the comedian go on one of his trademark manic tears, but still has his funny moments. More importantly, he is incredible at conveying a passion for literature and this in turn inspires his students who resurrect an old tradition of his when he was a student at the school – The Dead Poets Society, a group of boys who met, after lights out, at the old Indian cave off campus and recited their favorite poetry (and even some of their own). Keating is an outsider who used to be an insider – once a student at Welton Academy – and he’s gone on to be a free thinker who tries to impose his out-of-the-box approach on the school. Not surprisingly, he meets with resistance from the administration.
The cast is uniformly excellent and convincingly convey the kind of familiarity and friendship that exists and forms in a boarding school environment with Josh Charles and Gale Hansen being notable stand-outs with the former playing an irrepressible romantic that pursues a girl he pines for from afar and the latter playing a beatnik-in-training, who throws down the first gauntlet of rebellion against the administration. Even though they play archetypal characters, their performances move beyond the clichés into well-nuanced, three-dimensional people that we grow fond of and care about.
Weir perfectly captures the look and atmosphere of the northeast in autumn with orange and brown colored leaves on trees or lying on the ground as winter approaches. He also accurately depicts the rarified atmosphere of private school life: the camaraderie of the boys, the secret breaking of the rules, and the strict adherence to tradition. He shows us glimpses of the day-to-day goings on: chapel first thing in the morning, classes where one learns the standards (Latin, Trig, etc.) and the participation in sports like rowing.
When writing the screenplay for Dead Poet Society, every character was based loosely on someone Tom Schulman knew in real life. For example, Keating was inspired by an English teacher he had in his sophomore year of high school and a teacher he had in the Actors and Directors Lab in Los Angeles years later. Of all the characters in the film, Todd is the one Schulmann identified with the most because he was also shy and afraid of public speaking.
Early on, Jeff Kanew (Revenge of the Nerds) was set to direct and he wanted Liam Neeson to play Keating but the studio wanted Robin Williams. The comedian wanted to do the film but not with Kanew. The film was originally planned to be shot outside of Atlanta with sets built but Williams did not show up for the first day of shooting. Afterwards, the studio shut down the production and burned down the sets. Kanew left as a result. In 1987, Peter Weir met with Walt Disney boss Jeffrey Katzenberg about making a film with them. At the end of the meeting, Katzenberg gave him the script for Dead Poets Society. The director read and loved it as well as the chance to work with Williams.
In order to bond as a group, the seven young actors that played Keating’s students played soccer together and ran through simple acting exercises prior to principal photography. To get them into the spirit of their characters, Weir created an “atmosphere where there was no real difference between off-camera and on-camera – they were those people.”
Weir shot the film in sequence so that the actors would experience the same rollercoaster of emotions as their characters. He was also careful to rein in Williams’ trademark knack for improvisational comedy so that the character’s humor “had to be part of the personality,” and so they agreed “at the start that he was not going to be an entertainer in the classroom.” For the pivotal setting of the fictional Welton Academy, the production used St. Andrew’s School in Middleton, near Wilmington, Delaware with filming taking place from mid-October 1988 to late January 1989. For the most part filming went smoothly, however, in order to keep the budget under control, Disney shortened the shooting schedule, which stressed Weir out to no end. The director finally snapped and straightened things out with Katzenberg.
Dead Poets Society received mixed reviews from mainstream critics with Roger Ebert infamously giving it two out of four stars. He wrote, “The movie pays lip service to qualities and values that, on the evidence of the screenplay itself, it is cheerfully willing to abandon. If you are going to evoke Henry David Thoreau as the patron saint of your movie, then you had better make a movie that he would have admired.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Even worse, Mr. Schulman and Mr. Weir seem to accept the Keating character at romantic face value. In allowing him to remain a sort of hip Mr. Chips, they leave unexplored the contradictory nature of his responsibilities.” The Los Angeles Times’ Michael Wilmington wrote, “Ultimately, whatever its flaws, The Dead Poets Society commands respect and affection. It becomes—in ways that most movies don’t even attempt—a cry of passion and rage against the brutality of a conformist society, against the deadening of our capacity for beauty.”
There’s a long-standing tradition of coming-of-age stories set in prep schools both in literature with likes of A Separate Peace and The Catcher in the Rye and films like If… (1968) and Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975). Dead Poets Society is very much in that tradition, offering a poignant coming-of-age tale featuring conflicts between individuality and conformity. A way someone comes of age is through experience and taking something away from it. After what happens to Neil and then Keating, Todd is finally moved to assert himself in a way he was unwilling to do so before in a moving scene that manages to end the film on a hopeful albeit bittersweet note. I always get the feeling that Neil and Keating’s respective sacrifices are not in vain and that Todd will carry on their passion for the arts and for life now that he has finally learned how to seize the day. By the end of the film, Neil and Keating have had a profound effect on not just Todd but many of his classmates.
Dead Poets Society would earn Robin Williams a much-deserved Academy Award nomination and launch the careers of Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles, all of whom are still working in prominent movies and television to this day. The film would go on to inspire and influence subsequent boarding school movies like School Ties (1992) and Mona Lisa Smile (2003) among others but they all still live in the long shadow that Weir’s film casts. It still resonates today because its themes are timeless.
Anica, Rocio. “Screenwriter Tom Schulman Talks Dead Poets Society Blu-Ray.” I Am Rogue. January 19, 2012.
Brew, Simon. “Why Dead Poets Society’s Sets Were Burnt Down After One Day.” Mental Floss. April 24, 2015.
Griffin, Nancy. “Poetry Man.” Premiere. July 1989.
Mammarella, Ken. “Middletown Marks Dead Poets Society Anniversary.” The Delaware News Journal. March 22, 2014.
May, Grady. “Interview… Dead Poets Society Writer Tom Schulman.” GST. January 16, 2012.