Written by: John Heffernan
I have heard a lot about Dead Poets Society but never got around to actually watching the film because I thought it was going to be a “boring educational movie”. However I was pleasantly surprised by how engrossing the film actually became. After a little bit of a slow start the movie picked up in my opinion by the strong performance of Robin Williams as Mr. Keating.
The one takeaway I had from the film was the personality and sheer enjoyment that Mr. Keating got from teaching his classroom. The scene in which he described the introduction to the English text book as “excrement” (Dead Poet’s Society) had me laughing behind my computer screen. Then the act of ripping the entire introduction from the beginning of the book in juxtaposition to the strictness of The Academy’s strong religious and professionalism was gripping to me. One line that I took away was when Keating is talking with the Dean or Headmaster, and the Headmaster says something along the lines of “we do not need free thinkers at seventeen.” (Dead Poet’s Society) I found it quite ironic how in an establishment whose purpose is to engage minds and free thinkers is being suffocated by the administrations strict rules. Another scene that captures this is when the boys are discussing the creation of the “Dead Poet’s Society” and in the background you can hear a teacher or administrator saying something along the lines of “You boys better get in here.” (Dead Poet’s Society). Another scene in which I believe Weir captures the strict and villainous ways that the administration used to crack the students was the spanking scene. Charlie is reluctantly told to bend over after revealing the “Dead Poet’s Society” and repeatedly getting hit by a plank at the hands of the Headmaster. The one thing that I took away from that scene is the almost enjoyment that the Headmaster feels in his face, and he hits him harder and harder trying to get him to crack and it was done right brutal. This brutality is encapsulated perfectly by the medium of film rather than text. I do not believe such emotion and pain can be captured that precisely by simply using words, in my opinion.
The ending of the film also grabbed my attention. It was an interesting choice by Weir to expand the theme of strictness vs. freedom to the relationship between father and son. Constantly students are told to try to be a doctor or engineer, pretty much anything in STEM fields. I faced this myself when I actually wanted to explore acting when I was younger and my parents told me that actors are plentiful and the chances of making it are slim. The scene of Neal’s father standing in the back of the auditorium giving that death stare at him gave me chills. Then to have Neal literally be ripped away from Keating, his friends, and his future was heartbreaking. The actual reveal of his suicide had me shocked and the small detail of his mother in disbelief saying, “He’s alright…He’s alright” (Dead Poet’s Society) was tragic. Honestly when I saw Neil’s father in the back row, I rolled my eyes and said that we were going to see a resolution in which Neil’s father says, “Sorry son I was wrong” (Dead Poet’s Society) and everybody lives happily ever after. I am glad Weir did not go down the clique root of having a “happy ending” and feel that it really helped the film stand out
On the subject of O Captain! My Captain! I found significance in the fact that the students relate Mr. Keating to the dignitary of Abe Lincoln. I felt that the connection was at first a compliment to the authority and respect the students had for Keating but also it was an example of foreshadowing. Walt Whitman wrote the piece after the assassination of Lincoln and ironically the students say it as Keating is fired.
Dead Poet’s Society. Directed by Peter Weir, Performances by Robin Williams, Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke, Touchstone Pictures and Silver Screen Partners IV, 1989.