English Literature teacher John Keating runs afoul of conservative-minded administrators and parents at a prestigious New England prep school when he encourages his pupils to “Seize the day!”.d.
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The major problem with inspirational teacher and sports movies is that most are hokey and sentimental. With the skilled direction of renowned Australian film-maker Peter Weir, an intelligent original screenplay by Tom Schulman, and a bitter sweet dramatic performance by Robin Williams, Dead Poets Society rises above the mediocrity of The Empire Club and Mona Lisa’s Smile to obtain the gold standard set by the likes of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and To Sir, With Love.
As he would do later with the Truman Show and Jim Carrey, Peter Weir was able to channel the frantic comic energy of Robin Williams into an Oscar nominated performance. To guide the actor, Weir coined the name “Robin Keating” for he wanted the scripted character to be “shaded with 15 percent of Williams own off-the-cuff dialogue”. So to realistically depict the developing relationship between the seven students who reestablish Keating’s clandestine poetry-reading club, Peter Weir filmed scenes in chronological order and had the young thespians room together.
In 1959 Vermont, the Welton Academy is a straight-laced and upper crust prep school. The opening ceremony which features students carrying banners decreeing the principles of Tradition, Honour, Discipline, and Excellence serves two major purposes: it introduces the main characters and establishes the rigid environment which they are about to enter.
When the boys gather for their first English Literature class a strange thing occurs. The new teacher, Welton alumnus John Keating, informs them that they may call him “Oh, Captain! My Captain!” (a Walt Witman poem). He circles the room and then promptly leaves; the students are dumbfounded. Who is this strange man who has unexpectedly strolled into their lives? Academic life at Welton has suddenly become anything but routine.
John Keating literally takes his students out of the classroom and reintroduces them to the world through the power of poetry and self-discovery. Driven to learn more about their unconventional educator, Neil and his buddies find out Keating was at one time part of a secret literary fraternity known as the Dead Poets Society. Their late night gatherings involved assembling in a candle-lit cave where members would entertain one another by reading aloud favourite literary passages.
The opportunity of embracing a new found freedom proves to be too much to refuse; the Dead Poets Society is revived. Suddenly things begin to change for the boys. Neil gathers the nerve to pursue his true vocation – acting and Knox gathers the courage to romance the girl of his dreams. The world is their oyster until Charlie writes and publishes a profane article demanding that the school become a co-ed institution.
Not surprisingly, the school administration does not take kindly to the blatant and unsolicited attack on their much reveled academic tradition. Charlie is summoned before an inquiry and declares he acted alone. Matters worsen when Neil’s father learns of his son’s unsanctioned theatrical performance and demands that he withdraw from the play. Neil defies him and despite his stellar performance, the infuriated elder Perry makes arrangements for his son to attend a military college. Devastated by his future prospects Neil loses all sense of hope. Neil’s suicide is a fine example of Weir’s ability to blend music and imagery in a manner which implies the presence of a fatally troubled young mind. “You never see him shoot himself; I didn’t even want to hear the shot.” The director informed Premiere Magazine during an onset interview back in 1988. “But I had to see the preparations and then find the body. It was one of those sequences I loved”.
Spontaneous improvisation was not confined to Robin Williams. When the day arrived for filming Todd’s reaction to Neil’s suicide, a blizzard blanketed the shooting location. Actor Ethan Hawke was to suppose to run into a dormitory bathroom and throw up, however, this all changed when Peter Weir recognized that Mother Nature had provided him with a serendipitous gift. He incited the shivering Hawke to run out into the bleak white surroundings dressed only in his pajamas. The magnitude of the tragedy is further heightened when the six actors playing his traumatized classmates chase after their distraught friend.
With Welton rocked to its academic foundations by Neil’s suicide and with expulsions looming on the horizon, Richard hands Keating on a silver platter to the school administers. There is nothing left but for the Dead Poets to sign a petition declaring Keating’s negligence in their friend’s death. Later in class Todd finally breaks from his quiet shell, stands upon his desk and addresses Keating as he collects his belongings for the last time. The dramatic effect of Todd’s spontaneous action is nothing short of heartbreaking and inspirational as other students join in the impromptu salute to their beloved teacher and friend.
John Keating’s rallying cry: “Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.” was voted as the 95th most popular movie line by the American Film Institute. And in a way, Dead Poets Society did “Seize the day.” as the film went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay as well as awards for Best Picture and Best Original Score at the BAFTAS.