Dead Poets Society: Against the Stream

HE WAS THEIR INSPIRATION. HE MADE THEIR LIVES EXTRAORDINARY. 

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deadpoetssocietyThis movie was released when I was 13 and I remember what kind of effect it had on us all. Suddenly, we expected every teacher at school to be like John Keating, an inspiring “captain” we’d be willing to fight for. That was the ideal, and we were encouraged by the praise heaped upon the film, sometimes excessively. Watching it now, from the perspective of a 38-year-old adult, I can see the flaws. But it still had me in tears in the end, just like it did when I was 13.

In the late 1950s, students gather for a new semester at the Welton Academy, an elite East Coast prep school. One of the new English teachers is John Keating (Robin Williams) who used to be a student there. As soon as he’s out of sight of his peers, Keating attempts to do what few teachers have done before him – turn the students into independent individuals who can think for themselves. Naturally, this goes against the curriculum. Keating’s students are impressionable boys, and they immediately take a liking to their new teacher’s unconventional ways. Among the boys are Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), who’s destined to become a doctor, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) who’s learned from the start that there is no point in raising your voice because no one will listen, and Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) who falls in love with the “wrong” girl. Inspired by their teacher, several of the boys in his class decide to revive a secret club that Keating used to be a member of…

Earnestly handled by the director and cast
This one became Tom Schulman’s first screenplay to be made into a feature film. Based on his experiences at Montgomery Bell Academy in Tennessee, Schulman crafted a story that celebrated those teachers who had the imagination and ability to go the extra mile and not stare blindly at the curriculum, especially at a time and in a place where that kind of “subversion” was actively fought. The story often takes predictable ways, and should perhaps not be seen as a template for how teachers should act now, but it is earnestly handled by director Peter Weir who believes in it just as much as his brilliant cast. That conviction is what matters. Williams received his second Oscar nomination (after Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)), and he finds the right tone, often channeling Spencer Tracy as the mild, fair-minded Keating, interrupted a few times by his expected comedy routine… but it doesn’t get in the way of the drama. Leonard, Hawke and Charles were young and not well known at the time, but deliver strong performances as students trying to find their footing. We would have liked to know more about Keating and what motivates him, apart from a few clues, but in the end it is what happens to his students that moves us the most. Maurice Jarre accompanies the drama with subtle, emotional cues (along with a bit of Beethoven in key scenes) and cinematographer John Seale captures the cold beauty of an East Coast autumn and winter that fits hand in glove with the tragedy of a prep school that has no idea of how to help its kids grow into decent human beings. I should add that this is also symbolized to great effect by veteran actor Norman Lloyd’s effort as Welton’s stern principal.

The film popularized the Latin poet Horace’s old aphorism “Carpe diem”, meaning “seize the day”. It has since become a rallying cry primarily for students in need of an excuse to down one more shot instead of going home. The original meaning however is quite the opposite – and the film does show how differently Horace’s words can be used. If only you’re willing to look beneath Weir’s sentimental surface. 

Dead Poets Society 1989-U.S. 128 min. Color. Produced by Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas. Directed by Peter Weir. Screenplay: Tom Schulman. Cinematography: John Seale. Music: Maurice Jarre. Cast: Robin Williams (John Keating), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman… Kurtwood Smith, Lara Flynn Boyle.

Trivia: Liam Neeson, Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman were allegedly considered for the part of Keating.

Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. BAFTA: Best Film, Original Film Score.

Last word: “Keating’s humor had to be part of the personality. Robin and I agreed at the start that he was not going to be an entertainer in the classroom. That would have been wrong for the film as a whole. It would have been so easy for him to have the kids rolling on the floor, doubled up with laughter. So he had to put the brakes on at times.” (Weir, Premiere Magazine)

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