Dead Poets Society is a 1989 film directed by Peter Weir. Set in 1959 (though not free from anachronisms) at a conservative and autocratic boys prep school, it tells the story of an English teacher who inspires his students to change their lives of conformity through his teaching of poetry and literature.
The story is set at the fictional Welton Academy in Vermont and was filmed at St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware. The script was written based on the author's life at Montgomery Bell Academy, an all-boys preparatory school in Nashville, Tennessee. A novelisation by Nancy H. Kleinbaum (ISBN 0553282980) based on the movie's script has also been published.
Seven boys, Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), Richard Cameron (Dylan Kussman), Steven Meeks (Allelon Ruggiero) and Gerard Pitts (James Waterston) attend the prestigious Welton Academy prep school, which is based on four principles: Tradition, Honor, Discipline and Excellence.
On the first day of class, the students are introduced to their overwhelming curriculum. However, their new English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) tells the students that they can call him "O Captain! My Captain!" (the title of a Walt Whitman poem) if they feel daring. His first lesson is unorthodox by Welton standards, whistling the 1812 Overture and taking them out of the classroom to focus on the idea of carpe diem (Latin for 'seize the day') by looking at the pictures of former Welton students in a trophy case. In a later class Keating has Neil read the introduction to their poetry textbook, a staid, dry essay entitled "Understanding Poetry" by the fictional academic Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph. D., which describes how to place the quality of a poem on a scale, and rate it with a number. Keating finds the idea of such mathematical literary criticism ridiculous and encourages his pupils to rip the introductory essay out of their textbooks. After a brief reaction of disbelief, they do so gleefully as Keating congratulates them with the memorable line "Begone, J. Evans Pritchard, Ph. D" (much to the surprise and disbelief of one of Keating's colleagues). He later has the students stand on his desk as a reminder to look at the world in a different way, just as Henry David Thoreau intended when he wrote, "The universe is wider than our views of it" (Walden).
The rest of the movie is a process of awakening, in which the boys (and the audience) discover that authority can and must always act as a guide, but the only place where one can find out one's true identity is within oneself. To that end, the boys secretly revive an old literary club in which Keating had been a member, called the Dead Poets Society. Todd experiences a particular transformation when, out of a severe episode of self-consciousness, he fails to complete a creative writing assignment and is subsequently taken through an exercise of uncharacteristic self-expression, realizing the creative potential he truly possesses. One of the boys, Charlie Dalton, takes his new personal freedom too far and publishes an article in the school flyer that proposes girls be allowed at Welton. The article implies that the reason for the proposed change is to give the boys pleasure. When the faculty learns of it, he is paddled and interrogated about the others involved. Charlie says he acted alone.
This free thinking brings trouble for one of the boys, Neil. He decides to pursue acting, which he loves and excels at, rather than medicine, the career his strict father (Kurtwood Smith) had chosen for him. Keating urges Neil to tell his father how he feels before appearing in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which Neil plays the role of Puck. Neil feels unable to and lies to Keating, saying that his father is still unhappy with his acting but is letting him keep the role as long as he keeps up his studies, too. But Neil's father finds out the truth. After Neil's performance his father remains unimpressed and Neil is taken home instead of returning to school with everyone else.
Infuriated by this affront to his authority, Neil's father plans to pull him out of Welton and to enroll him in Braden Military School to prepare him for Harvard University and a career in medicine. Unable to cope with the future that awaited him and equally unable to tell his father about his passion for acting, Neil commits suicide with his father's revolver.
As a consequence of Neil's suicide, Nolan, the headmaster, holds an investigation into the tragedy. Nolan gets help from one of the students, Richard Cameron. When Charlie Dalton finds out that Cameron has not only squealed on them, but also blamed Keating, he furiously attacks his former friend, and is expelled from Welton.
Neil's father takes no responsibility for his son's death and instead holds Keating responsible. All the boys, but Todd, confess what Keating has taught them, but forced by his strict father, Todd regretfully signs a written confession casting blame on his former teacher. Keating is accused of inciting the boys to restart the Dead Poets Society, and is fired even though they recreated it themselves.
In the film's dramatic conclusion, the boys return to English class following Keating's termination. The class is now being temporarily taught by Nolan, who has the boys read from the very Pritchard essay they had ripped out at the start of the semester. As the lesson drones on, Keating enters the room to retrieve a few belongings. On his way out, Todd apologizes to Keating for having signed the confession, citing the force exercised by the Academy. Keating acknowledges this. Nolan sternly orders Todd to be quiet and demands that Keating leave at once. As he exits the door, Keating is startled to hear "O Captain! My Captain!" being called out by Todd, who has stood on his desk as Keating bid him to do earlier, demonstrating the new perspective Keating has taught him. Furious, Nolan warns Todd to sit down immediately or face expulsion, only to be defied. Then, one after another, the students climb onto their desks calling out "O Captain! My Captain!" as a form of salute. One student who does not rebel is Cameron (the snitch). With tears in his eyes, Keating says: "Thank you, boys. Thank you," and then walks out of the classroom for good.
The introductory essay that Keating has his students read from their poetry textbook near the beginning of the movie is taken nearly word-for-word from an early chapter of Laurence Perrine's (1915-1995) Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, which is still occasionally used by AP English classes in the United States.
Charlie Dalton writes his poem on the image of a centerfold; she is Elaine Reynolds, Miss October 1959 in Playboy magazine. In another reunion, the centerfold for Miss March 1959 Audrey Daston is seen briefly.
In one scene, a bagpipe player stands on the docks in the middle of the night. The song played is "The Fields of Athenry", an Irish ballad that tells the story of a man who stood up against 'the famine' and 'the crown' was arrested for it and dispatched to Botany Bay. This echoes the boys' actions: they stood up against the school and were punished, even though they did it for the right reasons. The song was composed in the 1970s.
The uniform of the fictional Welton Academy shares characteristics with that of director Weir's real high school, The Scots College, including the use of the Lion Rampant on blazer breast pocket. The major difference is that Welton's uses red and blue, while Scots' uses a gold and blue colour system.
The quotation from Henry David Thoreau read at the beginning of each meeting is incorrect. It actually reads
Neil Perry recites the words of Puck's soliloquy at the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
The extreme closeups seen in this movie became a successful signature for Peter Weir.
Roger Ebert panned the film, saying he wanted to throw up by the end of the movie.
Film director Alexander Payne felt similarly about the film's ending. He commented, "I remember feeling so cheated ... when they all stand up on their desks. Please. It's saying, 'Really in their hearts, people aren't conformists,' when quite the opposite is true. If I had directed Dead Poets Society, it wouldn't have made half the money it made ... At the end, he should go in, they all look at him, they feel guilty for what they've done, you want one of them to stand on their desk, none of them does, and he leaves, and you're left with a more chilling feeling. That, to me, says the same idea, that we should be nonconformists. The way it's done, you like it and you forget about it. I think it's a little more important to make movies that are challenging at the end. You've got to think about it more and come up with your own response.
Tracks composed by Maurice Jarre.