Rated. Running time: 1 hour 32 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5.
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy.
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
Caution: there are spoilers in the last half of this review.
Australian filmmaker Peter Weir’s film is set in New England during the 1950s, a period often called “The Age of Conformity.” The film features an English teacher who harks back to iconoclasts like Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. In a role he was born to play Robin Williams as John Keating has returned to his alma mater Welton Academy to shake it up as never before. He gives the staid students a foretaste of what is to come in the Sixties, but, judging by what transpires, was he born a decade too early?
Actually the film is more centered on two roommates at the Academy and their set of friends, the theme dealing more with the effect of a creative, caring teacher upon his students than upon the details of his biography. The two students have one thing in common, stern fathers who want each to conform to the family pattern by following in their footsteps.
Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) is told he must live up to his older brother’s reputation to attend Yale and become a lawyer. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) is expected to become a doctor, even though he yearns to be a writer. Later his father (Kurtwood Smith) orders him to drop an elective course so that he can concentrate on getting grades good enough to admit him to medical school. At this point neither student has the backbone to stand up against their fathers. Then they meet their English teacher.
On the first day of classes, Keating, instead of delivering the usual boring introductory lecture that we see and hear the other teachers spewing out, orders the class to follow him out into the hallway and gaze at the trophy case where there are pictures of all of the other students that have preceded them. Asking them to imagine the lives of the young men before them, he says:
“They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. 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 fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – -“
The students, some with puzzled looks, do as they are told. They hear a whisper that grows louder. It is their teacher, “Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”
The next day when they open their books to read the introductory essay that treats poetry in a mechanistic way, he tells them to do the unthinkable. Tear out the offensive pages, tear them out, which reluctantly, hesitatingly they do as he assures “It’s not the Bible, you’re not gonna go to Hell for this.”
At another time in the classroom Keating climbs up on his desk, saying, “Why do I stand up here? Anybody? “ A student name Dalton, responds, “To feel taller!” “No,” the teacher answers as he rings a small bell with his foot as if they were on a quiz show. “Thank you for playing Mr. Dalton. I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” He then has the boys to stand on top of their own desks so that they can look at familiar surroundings from a different perspective.
Needless to say, Keating is the subject of the boys’ discussions afterward. They learn that when he was at Welton he founded something called “The Dead Poet’s Society” in which students slipped out at night to a cave to read and discuss poetry. They agree to try their own, meeting in the nearby cave to read and discuss poetry.
Of course we can see that his fellow teachers will also discuss the unorthodox teacher. At dinner the Latin teacher tells Keating, “You are taking a big risk in making your students think they are artists”. Keating replies: “I’m only trying to make them free thinkers”. His colleague disagrees, saying, “Free thinkers at age seventeen? Not really. Be a realist!”
It is inevitable that Keating and the stern Headmaster Nolan (Norman Lloyd) will collide. This collision takes on tragic dimensions when one of the students tries to follow his own heart and “seize the day” by taking part in the school Shakespeare production, but is told by his outraged father that he is going to withdraw him from Welton and send him to a military school where he will be shaped up and put back on the career path of medicine the father has chosen for him.
This Good Friday sequence includes Keating being blamed for the tragedy, especially by a boy named Cameron .The other boys forced to sign an affidavit against him. He is fired with no severance pay or letter of recommendation, and yet there is a touch of Easter in his taking leave of the students. They are sitting in the English classroom with Principal Nolan now teaching them. He tells them to take up their poetry textbooks and read the awful introduction by the joy killing didactic who thought that poetry could be reduced to a mathematical formula. There is confusion at first because they no longer have this section, so Nolan loans his to one of the boys to read aloud. Keating comes in to pick up some of his papers. The guilt-ridden Todd tells him that the students were intimidated into signing the charges against him. Nolan orders Keating to leave and Todd to sit down.
Instead of complying, the newly emboldened Todd climbs atop his desk and salutes Keating with, “O Captain! My Captain!” Perhaps the boy was remembering when the teacher had jokingly suggested that they could address him thus and then had told them about Walt Whitman. Or perhaps he is thinking of Keating urging them, “Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!” Well now Todd has at last found his voice, and heedless of Nolan’s orders, remains standing. Then, one by one, most of the other boys rise and climb atop their desks—except for Cameron who had betrayed them to Nolan. “Thank you, boys. Thank you,” Keating says as he walks out of the room. There are tears in his eyes, tears of gratitude and relief that he has left something of lasting value in the hearts and minds of his students.