4 out of 5 stars

‘Tradition. Honour. Discipline. Excellence.’ These are the words emblazoned on Welton Academy’s banners. They hang high above the heads of young boys as they march solemnly into the assembly hall of this elite boarding school. These mid-teenagers only know a life of strict rules and harsh punishments, worsened by the weighty expectations of their parents.

Unbeknownst to them, the arrival of the new English teacher, John Keating (Robin Williams), will soon change their lives forever. His teaching methods are a stark contrast to anything they’re accustomed to: he’s playful, funny, and breathtakingly imaginative. His descriptions of poetry are utterly inspiring. As they’ll soon discover, his desire for them to think independently will bring them all into conflict with the rigid school headmaster.

I’ve always found the message of Dead Poets Society profoundly moving. Director Peter Weir succeeds in capturing the angst, problems, and dreams of a young generation entering an uncertain future. Although there are some flaws in Weir’s classic film, it’s mostly well-written and has a vivid atmosphere, meaning the legacy of Dead Poets Society remains very much intact. While not perfect, it’s a touching exploration of the importance of embracing life, the essential role of art and creativity in a society dominated by conformity, and an inspiring ode to the courage required to chase your dreams.

Dead Poets Society is one of those films that is instantly quotable. It’s written with this intention in mind, designed to be performed dramatically by a talented actor. Thankfully, Robin Williams was up to the challenge. His kind, wise intonation—which he was perfecting for his Academy Award-winning turn in Good Will Hunting (1997)—will give you goosebumps: “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

What sets Williams’ Keating apart from other cinematic mentors is his quiet compassion. He never once raises his voice, and his monologues almost have a forlorn air about them. When he pleads with his students to seize the day, to suck the marrow out of life, it is done in a passionate, spiritual way, lacking the aggressive edge that some modern influencers regrettably possess. “We are food for worms, lads,” Keating informs them affectionately. Such pithy, evocative calls to action are sure to make even the most cynical viewer experience something akin to awe.

George Bernard Shaw famously quipped: “Youth is wasted on the young.” The same could be said of Weir’s classic. That’s because Dead Poets Society is a film that, perhaps unsurprisingly, becomes even more poignant with age. It’s a story that warns against the many follies of youth, reminding us of life’s transience. Keating is direct in educating his students on this little life lesson as they look at photographs of old Welton students: “Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see, gentlemen, these boys are now fertilising daffodils.” Though they initially chuckle, the boys soon quieten down to consider how they must gather their rosebuds. 

The theme of inspiration pervades the film. Each boy is radicalised by Keating in different ways, but all experience growth. Knox (Josh Charles) pursues love before the moment has passed him by. Neal (Robert Sean Leonard) chases after artistic endeavours against the wishes of his parents. And Charlie (Richard Hansen) is emboldened by the desire to stand out from the crowd and question authority.

Needless to say, their quest to walk down a road less travelled is not appreciated by anyone in charge. John Keating’s presence at the school is vaguely reminiscent of an old science fiction novella written by Eric Frank Russell, titled … And Then There Were None (1951). A scathing satire of the mind-numbing effects of capitalist principles on society, Russell’s work excoriates social systems that deliberately manipulate and brainwash people into becoming productive, emotionless drones. Weir is making the same point: the parents in the film prioritise their children’s potential for financial success over their emotional well-being.

Intriguingly, both stories deal with the infectious nature of ideas. Revolutions are difficult to quell not because of the men who fight them, but because of the ideals they fight for. All it takes is an attractive notion, spoken by a compelling orator, and entire hierarchies can crumble. It is for this reason that Headmaster Dr Gale Nolan (Norman Lloyd) treats Keating with such suspicion. Nolan is a charismatic leader who is on his way to starting a very literate cult, with his emphasis on compassion, emotions, and other concepts utterly alien to the despotic headmaster.

He’s right to be wary of his influence. The idea that Keating plants in their heads, that they too will soon be old, creates personal rebellions. They break out at night time and read poetry in a cave, chanting Vachel Lindsay’s poetry much like the travelling bard did in the early 20th-century. Neal and Todd (Ethan Hawke) disobey their parents, which is dramatised in one spectacular scene where Todd throws a desk set over the high wall of the school.

It must be said that some scenes veer towards sentimentality at times. Additionally, there’s one glaring plot hole towards the end of the film: Neal’s suicide. In my opinion, this plot point never truly makes sense. The sequence is triggered by his father’s punishment—Thomas (Kurtwood Smith) is sending Perry to military school for appearing in a school play. While this is a strange response to discovering your child is involved in theatre, even stranger is that we are denied a proper confrontation. Neal never challenges his father in any way, making his subsequent decision to take his own life feel quite random; Neal is essentially resigned to his own demise, lacking any emotionality in his final scene.

I understand that he was crushed and dominated by his draconian father. However, this moment feels forced for the plot—they needed a sentimental ending. Neal’s tragic arc makes little sense for his character, though. Throughout the film, he’s shown to be energetic, happy, and generally optimistic. That he should suddenly resort to suicide seems rather out of the blue. Perhaps not a plot hole per se, it does directly contradict the film’s message: carpe diem (seize the day). Without being facetious, committing suicide is the exact opposite of embracing life.

Indeed, the original ending was intended to focus on Keating’s untimely demise from cancer, which would have aligned far better with this moral message. It also would have explained Keating’s passionate descriptions of life’s fleeting nature. If the English teacher had been aware that he was terminally ill, his pleas for the young boys to make their lives extraordinary would have taken on a much more poignant significance. His monologues have a rather deliberate sense of memento mori, as if he had taken lines from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and wedded them to Romantic poetry.

This ending was swapped out for the one we know today. Weir seemingly wanted the story to focus more on the boys. I believe this was a mistake. The film could have quite easily continued from the boys’ perspective, which would have made more thematic sense for the narrative. Furthermore, it feels as though only the ending was changed, while the rest of the plot remained the same. This could explain why Neal’s death feels sudden and unexpected; Keating’s death is the one the story has been building towards.

Perhaps another reason Weir opted to feature this plot line was because, even if it seems out of character for Neal, it lends itself to the fantastical depictions of death that are rendered in Romantic poetry. Suicidal ideation might not be a motif of this poetic style, but death as a theme is often presented in a charming, idealised way. This is particularly the case in the morbid musings of John Keats’s poetry, where he expresses a longing for a graceful departure from this mortal plane: “For many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death.”

I can’t help thinking the ending was written with this theme in mind. As Keats is often recognised as the pre-eminent Romantic poet, it would be odd not to have at least considered his short life and early death when writing. I suspect Williams’ iconic character might even be a reference to the legendary talent; their names are remarkably similar, so much so that it seems unlikely to be a coincidence.

The suicide itself is depicted in a highly romanticised manner: John Seale’s flowing cinematography effortlessly captures the essence of Keats’ verse. As Neal, wearing his crown, stares longingly out of the window, or uncovers the pistol and sits at the desk, it all seems straight out of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale (1819): “Now more than ever seems it rich to die, To cease upon the midnight with no pain.”

All things considered, if you’re looking for a very similar combination of elitist, domineering school systems and overbearing parental control, but with a happier ending, then Richard Linklater’s ever-enjoyable School of Rock (2003) is the film for you. There’s less poetry, but more rock and roll, so it just depends on whether you’re in the mood for Walt Whitman or Led Zeppelin.

While it may be a wrong turn for the story to take, it is salvaged by the compelling performances from everyone onscreen, including the young boys. Even though he’s not the main character, the film will forever be remembered as the Robin Williams Show: he’s magnetic in every scene. Given the iconic status his performance has earned, it’s crazy to think that he barely landed the part. A slew of actors were considered before him, or even attached to star, before having to drop out. These include Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, Dustin Hoffman, and even Mickey Rourke.

Peter Weir seems to have been influenced by French cinema. He exhibited a fondness for the country in his debut feature, The Cars That Ate Paris (1974). But there is also a visible connection between the troubled youth in Weir’s drama and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959), though I find Truffaut’s portrayal of confused, frightened youth much more honest and less Hollywoodian.

Weir’s film, however, was so influential in its own right that it captured the imagination of America. Any other coming-of-age drama set in a boarding school is measured against Dead Poets Society. While I would consider both Scent of a Woman (1992) and last year’s The Holdovers (2023) to be superior, neither will ever become quite as iconic as Weir’s film, partly due to the story’s key moments and partly due to Williams’ stirring performance.

The ending is bittersweet. Keating leaves the school, but he has effected change in almost everyone he has met—including the teachers. In what is one of the most fondly remembered scenes in the film, the Latin teacher, George McAllister (Leon Pownall), quotes Alfred Lord Tennyson when he advises Keating not to fill his students’ heads with fanciful dreams. Keating wins McAllister over with some verse of his own, and by the film’s end, McAllister has adopted some of Keating’s teaching methods himself.

That’s because Keating’s influence is not only charming but also indescribably inspiring. The few plot flaws become irrelevant—it’s his character that you’ll remember most after watching the film. To reference Tennyson in a more positive light, Keating instils bravery in his students akin to this quote: “It’s better to have tried and failed than to live life wondering what would’ve happened if I had tried.” For any viewer, young or old, Dead Poets Society will inspire you to make your life extraordinary.

USA | 1989 | 128 MINUTES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Peter Weir.
writer: Tom Schulman.
starring: Robin Williams, Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Norman Lloyd & Kurtwood Smith.