Dead Poets Society

John Keating teaches a roomful of teenage boys in Dead Poets Society

“Oh captain, my captain.”

This film has been featured in an episode of my podcast on movies and mental health, Peculiar Picture Show!

The 80s were a time of great financial growth, but also great greed, and Generation X was getting old enough to have an opinion about it. Gen X started their own cultural movement in the 90s and basically torched everything to the ground, but it started with some general unease in the 90s. Dead Poets Society, directed by Peter Weir (The Truman Show, Witness) and starring Robin Williams and a host of young talent, makes an interesting statement to the emerging Gen X ideology by showing how their parents dealt with that same problem of greed and success at the detriment of truth and beauty in the 1950s. This is admittedly not a universal movie—it delves deeply into Romantic and Transcendentalist ideologies and definitely appeals to lovers of old books more than the general population. But there’s a lot here that teenagers of any age will relate to. Whether you agree with Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau or not, there’s plenty to think about and plenty to like in this film.

The story is set in a boys prep school in the 1950s, with most students there hoping to get into Yale or Harvard when they graduate. These are not intellectuals, though—they’re the kind of phony rich kids Holden Caulfield railed against in Catcher in the Rye, at least to start. But a new English teacher, John Keating, opens their eyes to Romantic poetry, free thought, and individualism—much to the chagrin of the very conservative school administration. As the boys discover themselves in the pages of classic literature, they form a club to read together and live free: the Dead Poets Society. The boys quickly discover, though, that living free is not without risk, nor is it harmless. They also come to learn that the world is not kind to the dreamers who dare to think for themselves.

Sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.

A lot of English majors will cite this as a favorite movie, and that’s for good reason. This film draws on the wisdom from past literature to teach us how to be alive today, taking on a double meaning as we see how the Beatniks embracing poetry in the 50s parallels Gen X embracing brutal realism in the 80s and 90s. This is a great film about old books. This was one of the big inspirations for me becoming an English major in college and studying the classics. (Ironically, in my studies, I discovered that I didn’t actually like the Romantics or the Transcendentalists all that much and I preferred the Existentialists. But I digress.) And after re-watching this, I kind of want to go back and pick up some of the books I loved in my youth. There’s a lot of truth and beauty in the world, and this film follows in the footsteps of the Romantics in reminding us to appreciate all of it.

John Keating stands on his desk in Dead Poets Society
I was fortunate enough to have some quirky, passionate college professors, much like Keating was in this film. It really did change the way I looked at the world.

Don’t let that description fool you into thinking that this is a boring movie about old, dusty books, though. This is, at its heart, a comedy with plenty of funny moments to keep your attention throughout. Seeing these teenage boys learn to embrace beauty and live life to the fullest is entertaining and hilarious. It has some serious and even dark moments (what’s literature without a little tragedy?), but even in the midst of darkness, this film is uplifting and inspiring. Overall, I’m not a fan of inspirational movies because they tend to lose their grip on reality, but this one never goes too far into flight or fantasy. In fact, some of the dark moments keep it grounded and actually turn it into a bit of a cautionary tale. But this film will make you believe that there is beauty and goodness in the world, and that’s no small accomplishment.

Dead Poets Society came along at an interesting time, and the statement it makes is a bit ambiguous. Was it an affirmation of the growing angst in the 80s? An indictment of how Gen X was handling it? Or was it simply a reminder that the youth of the 80s were not the first ones to encounter that problem? I don’t think it’s entirely clear, and it’s probably a little bit of each of those things. But it’s a great comedy-drama that’s a breath of fresh air in a sea of over-the-top pseudo-inspirational films, irreverent comedies, and angry rants about the darker parts of society. They don’t make films like this anymore, and frankly, it’s been a long time since they have.

Runtime: 2:08
Director: Peter Weir
Year: 1989
Genres: comedy, drama
Rating: PG

Movies Like Dead Poets Society

  • Good Will Hunting – This is a smart inspirational drama that shows us the next step in the philosophy from Dead Poets Society: love something (or, more specifically, someone) more than yourself. Like Dead Poets Society, this is a good mix of intellectual and emotional, humor and drama, and the two are equally stirring.
  • The African Queen – This classic romantic adventure shows us the power that individuals can have when they decide to make a difference in the world. It’s inspirational and evocative, and rarely are such movies this exciting.

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