Original release: June 2nd, seek 1989
Running time: 128 minutes
Director: Peter Weir
Writer: Tom Schulman
Cast: Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke
“Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” ~ John Keats, April 1810
After watching Dead Poets Society for the first time, I’m struck by the concept of duty. We’re all enslaved by duty but also enriched by its ties to discipline, morality, pride and tradition. Growing up, I remember feeling a sense of duty towards school and my parents; of course, as a pubescent adolescent there were openings for mischief and defiance in sync with every other regular kid, but fundamentally I always tried to do well in school and go on to further study or employment. Whether or not I genuinely wanted this or my parents had instilled their feelings in me is up for debate, but in many ways I have arrived at a point in my life – my early twenties – feeling thankful for the opportunities afforded to me.
Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society is about that very thing: opportunity. Set in the lofty aristocratic dorms of the all-boy Welton Academy in 1959, it centres on a new poetry teacher, Mr Keating (Robin Williams), who enkindles a group of students (featuring a very young Ethan Hawke) by teaching them to “seize the day” through verse. The conservative ethos of this prep-school is challenged by Keating’s valedictory message about carpe diem and ruffles the feathers of many teachers whose views reflect a hardened, wartime enforcement of rules and regulations.
Robin Williams is instantly likeable as Mr Keating, just as in so many of his roles, here playing a quirky teacher who encourages the boys to rip out the introduction of their poetry textbook. The first chapter outlines how to measure a poem’s greatness by using mathematical formulas – an approach deemed practically inhumane by Keating. Roused by their teacher’s unorthodox methods, a cohort of friends discover Keating to be an alumnus of Welton, who once chaired a midnight poetry society that encouraged students to read aloud the works of Byron, Shelley and other romantics. The group resurrect the society, sneaking out after dark to an old cave beyond the stream, cultivating their love of poetry and exploring a devilish side to boarding school life that classrooms fail to tolerate.
This reflects the major struggle depicted in the film. These boys are part of a generational push to become doctors, lawyers, bankers – a future preordained for them by tyrannical parents. At the same time, they’re at an age of curiosity and uncertainty, filled with vigour and hope for what lies ahead. Poetry allows them to dream of something not set in stone or rewarded by exam success. When they steal away to read aloud, it introduces a mystical and fantastical quality to the film. Night-time is a chance for indulgence and fun, to liberate themselves from the parameters of their schoolwork. We could argue that we all feel this way about school – but there’s something deeply serious about Dead Poets Society, not just from the title suggesting that freethinkers are doomed, but that if freethinkers are brave enough to unite, they will be remembered in history.
Mr Keating enacts a cheesy exercise to teach the boys about conformity. He asks three of them to walk around the courtyard; after a minute they start walking in unison and are clapped in time by their classmates. Just as we feel duty-bound to right and wrong, we’re compelled to belong. Our identity’s not wholly our own, but is reflected in those who befriend us. It takes a long time for this idea to come out in the film, which can become a little frustrating in a two-hour feature, but it gives Weir the time to explain how crippled by convention these boys are. Most of us will look at institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge, or Yale in the US, as luxuries aimed squarely at the rich. In a sense, what do these kids have to moan about, given how many opportunities are at their fingertips? This is true, but they’re swallowed up by traditions and systems at an early age and face the same pressures we all do.
The recent fallout over GCSEs in the UK is reflective of a general senselessness linked with education in this country. School is heavily geared towards the academic, not vocational, branch of knowledge. How we test and rank children creates unnatural hierarchies and legitimises bureaucracy, whereas vocational tuition can create cooperative rivalries and encourage teamwork. Dead Poets Society speaks to this idea by suggesting that deliverance through poetry is not something idealist but something enormously practical. Teaching children to address their own future is more preparatory than getting them into university. At what age children are ready to learn this falls into a greyer area. However, it would be a conversation at least worth having in this country, instead of waiting until children have been inducted into hegemony by the concepts of owning a house, getting married, or having lots of money.
There’s a lot which has aged in Dead Poets Society – many of the sentiments seem camp and tacky, save for a devastating final 30 minutes which pulls the entire film together (the result of which contains too huge a spoiler for me to utter). However, it also acts as a gentle reminder of the aristocracies which served to institutionalise knowledge in the same way Jesuits did. Mr Keating is rather a symbol of changing positions that infiltrate theo-conservative outlooks on raising youngsters. This is what makes Dead Poets Society heart-warming but also pertinent, meaningful and achingly profound.
Andrew started out writing theatre reviews in Edinburgh while studying for a degree in Arts Journalism. His interest in film came after attending several festivals across the UK. In particular, he discovered a love of documentary cinema, specifically the work of Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
Andrew loves films which investigate stories of undocumented struggle and solitude. Some favourite docs include Grizzly Man, King of Kong, 5 Broken Cameras, L'encerclement, Inside Job and Shoah.
Andrew runs a Scottish arts review website, TVBomb, and you can follow him on Twitter at @ajlatimer.