‘Break Out’: Dead Poets Society- Review

-By Akshata Sinha

Dead Poets Society is a 1989 drama, written by Tom Schulman and directed by Peter Weir. Set in the year 1959, it follows the life at the fictional all-male elite, and conservative prep school – Welton Academy, and the impact of the arrival of their new English professor, an alumnus of the same school. The new employment is a contradiction in every sense – a gust of chilling air that invokes action into the mundane and orientated outlook of the 100-year-old establishment. The film stars Robin Williams, who plays Professor John Keating. 

The movie is loosely based on the screenwriter’s (Schulman) life who attended the Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee. Keating’s character finds its real-life inspiration in Samuel F. Pickering Jr, the eccentric yet grounded teacher. 

The story revolves around the new admission Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke), his roommate Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), and the latter’s five friends: Knox Overstreet, Richard Cameron, Stephen Meeks, Gerard Pitts, and Charlie Dalton. All of them come into direct contact with Keating, and though at first they are taken aback by his unconventional style of teaching, soon their young and impressionable mind take comfort in the knowledge that life has more fire and depth to it. In their first English class, they are taught that they are mere “food for worms” and the decorated and respectable alumni of Welton now “are fertilizing daffodils”. Keating uses the Latin term ‘Carpe Diem’ and asks everyone to conform to its literal meaning: ‘to seize the day’, so that they can give meaning and purpose to their lives. 

Keating continues on his eccentric path – urging his pupils to tear off the pages from their book, ‘Understanding Poetry’ because it mentions a “ryhmometer” (as he calls it) for measuring the greatness of a poem; teaching the students out in the open; incorporating ‘reading out aloud’ of personally articulated poems and sports in his pedagogy. However, these novel occurrences do not go unnoticed by other teachers. One of such teachers objects, to which Keating replies that he is not cultivating a class of “ artists” but “freethinkers”.

In an old yearbook, featuring a teenage Keating the students discover the ‘Dead Poets Society’. Upon questioning, Keating reveals that the secret organization was the safe haven for romantics. The society members met in a cave on the campus and took turns reciting poetry, out loud. The poems were not strictly academic; but whatever made their blood sing. With their interest piqued, the boys leave their rooms one night, carefully evicting their watchman’s lookout and convene their first meeting. This world away from the mundane and doctrinal lives they live on-campus was equivalent to the blooming of an eye-catching flower from a little green bud, very much alive but not full of life.

The story does not, in any manner, depict blatant disobedience or disregard for education, traditions, or the way of life that is just goal-oriented. Rather it stands for the presence of perspective, especially for the youth. In a scene, Keating asks everyone to come and stand on his desk for a moment, look at the surroundings and take it in – reflecting the manner in which life should be perceived – differently yet cohesively. 

As the movie progresses, several character developments have one commonality – courage. Like other attributes, the prospect of being courageous too resides in most minds. A gentle nudge and that courage help us to rise and achieve. All the characters get the chance to feel that gentle nudge and explore what more there is to themselves. Hit by tragedy towards the end, the story still manages to hold itself together, for the ending is as powerful and deep as the beginning. It is a rare phenomenon to witness, for movies usually give into emotional scenes a little too much. And for this, I applaud the writer and director. 

Even though the movie stars Robin Williams, a very big star of his time, his character or portrayal does not, in any way, acquire the focus solely. The audience can love the teacher but not without first seeing the impact he had on his students. The very same layers include the stoic and determined Headmaster, parents, and other teachers of the institution.

This movie leaves a mark because it is more nurturing than supplying, more calming than disruptive, in the way that it does not just affect the school-going audience or children having rigid parents, but everyone who feels life is a much more profound entity. For everyone who dared to stand against the current and still have tolerance and acceptance, but at the same time speak freely. A heartwarming saga, it does not fail in compelling us to think about our education system, household, friendship, love, and life.

Little known Fact- Schulman wrote in a scene featuring Keating on his deathbed (Pickering was dying of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma), in his original script. However, at Weir’s discretion, the scene was cut.


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