Tradition. Honor. Discipline. Excellence. These are Welton Academy’s ‘Four Pillars’ in Dead Poets Society (1989). But behind closed doors, away from stodgy old teachers, away from beating-a-dead-horse expectations and stiff male competition, the boys joke, smoking. Travesty. Horror. Decadence. Excrement.
The film, directed by Peter Weir, is set in 1959 at Welton Academy, an all-male, Ivy League prep-school in Vermont; a rich campus, laden with the stateliness of stone, high arches, heavy wooden doors. Throughout the film it is dressed in the passage of time: autumn leaves, foliage, frosted snow.
We meet the students. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), a shy scared-of-his-own-shadow but heart-searching new kid. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd’s roommate, a polite profile; adventurous, a caricature of the Good Son. Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), a teenage boy heartsick about Chris, the cheerleader. Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), a studious rule-follower. Steven Meeks and Gerard Pitts (Allelon Ruggiero and James Waterson), who get pulverized and poked for their names. And Charles Dalton (Gale Hansen), the cocky one, presumptuous but loyal as a lion.
Welcome to Helton. The films follows this band of boys, some from rich families, others well-off, others scholarship students, or beneficiaries and bearers of families who’ve striven to put their sons in school. Not just any school. The school that’ll send them to the Ivy League. From there, they’ll be doctors, lawyers and bankers. Tomorrow’s establishment. This movie is a long, drawn-out, fraught and forlorn story that can be summed up as “No, Dad. That’s not my dream. It’s yours.” But the boys make you heartsore. Living in 1959, these boys call their father ‘Sir’ and shake their hands when they’re saying goodbye. Boys no older than 10 are told ‘No tears, son,’ as their families drive away.
Neil’s father, Red from That 70’s Show, is strict about his son. ‘You’re doing too many extracurriculars, Neil,” he says. ‘You’re going to drop the school paper.’ This is gutting for Neil, who is choked-up and struck, but he nods. ‘I don’t give a damn about any of it,’ he tells his friends, later. But Neil gives a damn. Because his father has painted a black and soul-eating picture for him. He’s going to Harvard, then medical school, then he’ll be a doctor.
Along comes Mr. Keating (Robin Williams). He’s an anomaly at Welton. ‘I went to Helton, too,’ he says, his first day, to everyone’s shock. He’s younger than the other teachers, not stuffy, more of an overgrown boy. He makes jokes. He laughs. He celebrates life. In his class, the boys aren’t scolded for smiling, talking out of turn, or seeing romance beyond realism. He teaches the boys poetry, unconventionally. They tear pages out of books. They recite a verse then run and kick a ball. They march around the courtyard to understand conformity. He wants the boys to be free, to think for themselves, to have emotion. “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute,” Mr. Keating says. “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Most of what Mr. Keating says throughout the movie I want to frame, hold close, think about, mull. Sometimes words are words, we hear them but they have no meaning; other times, words are liferafts, our hearts, metaphors, or secrets and we feel them.
Mr. Keating, as a student at Welton, was in the Dead Poets Society, a ring of sodality; and so, with Neil as the ringleader, the band start their own Dead Poets Society. They meet in a cave, read poetry, and “suck the marrow out of life” by seeing past what’s expected of them to what they want. For Neil, this is acting. Though his father doesn’t approve, he pursues it. For Knox, he wants to get the girl. A cheerleader named Chris. For Todd, well. One of the best parts of the movie is when Mr. Keating, who knows and understands Todd’s shyness, gets Todd to stand up in front of the class, no holds barred, eyes closed, swinging and waxing poetic and composing, out of his shell. ‘Don’t you forget this,’ Keating tells Todd when he receives raucous raves from his classmates, claps like sweet self-actualizing validation. I don’t.
There are sweet plot points. We see the Dead Poets Society in their meetings, puffing pipes, reading verses. Charlie plays noise on a saxophone that melds into music. Knox calls Chris, heartsick for her, and his friends gather around the phone while he talks, eager and giggly and young. Knox goes to Chris’s school, brings her flowers and reads her the poem he’d written in her image, and when he returns, his friends crowd around him. ‘How’d it go? What’d she say?’ They don’t rib, poke or make fun. They want to know. ‘She didn’t say anything,’ Knox says. ‘But I did it.’ And Neil accepts Todd. He likes Todd, helps Todd. ‘I can take care of myself just fine,’ Todd says, quiet and in need of a friend. ‘No.’ Neil rebukes, very much Todd’s friend.
The movie is underlined with sadness. While it’s about expression, enlightenment and emoting, it’s also about depression, darkness and breaking points. The boys in this movie are privileged. It’s a story about first-world problems. It’s about boys who don’t want to be their fathers. But as Mr. Keating teaches these boys to think, emote, love – he teaches them to be good, thoughtful. Not like their fathers, Manly Men who would think reading poetry was feminine or crying babyish.
Everyone has a cross to bear. It’s about being human. Carpe Diem.
Oh Captain, my Captain.