AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Dead Poets Society
Director: Peter Weir (Dir)
Release Date:   2 Jun 1989
Duration (in mins):  125
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Cast: Robin Williams  (John Keating)
  Robert Sean Leonard  (Neil Perry)
  Ethan Hawke  (Todd Anderson)

Summary: At Welton Academy, an elite, all-boys preparatory school in Vermont, headmaster Nolan welcomes students and parents in a ceremony celebrating the start of fall semester, 1959. The boys are asked to repeat the school’s “four pillars” – tradition, honor, discipline, excellence – and are reminded that seventy-five percent of last year’s graduating class went on to study at Ivy League universities. Mr. Nolan introduces a new English teacher, a Welton alumnus named John Keating, and, later, greets parents as they bid goodbye to their sons. An introverted new student, Todd Anderson, meets his roommate, Neil Perry, whose overbearing father barges into their dormitory room and demands that Neil drop one of his extracurricular activities in favor of his studies. Meanwhile, Todd suffers from feelings of inadequacy because his older brother, Jeffrey, graduated Welton as valedictorian. On the first day of class, John Keating leads his students into a hallway to view old photographs of former students, reminding everyone that they are now dead. He quotes Walt Whitman’s poem about Abraham Lincoln, “O Captain! My Captain!” and invites the students to address him as their captain. Next, he instructs Gerard Pitts to read a line from a Robert Herrick poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time,” and acquaints the boys with the phrase “Carpe diem,” Latin for “Seize the day.” As Neil and Todd examine the photographs of their predecessors, Keating whispers “Carpe diem” into the students' ears. That evening, Neil invites Todd to join his friends in a study group, but Todd declines. Another study group regular, Knox Overstreet, leaves campus to have dinner at the home of family friends, the Danburrys. There, he meets Chris Noel, the girl friend of Mr. Danburry’s son, Chet, and becomes smitten with her. Returning to the dormitory, Knox announces that he has just met the most beautiful girl he has ever seen. The next day, Keating asks Neil to read a chapter from their textbook titled Understanding Poetry, which outlines a metric to determine the value of a poem. Denouncing the concept of measuring a poem’s worth, Keating instructs the class to rip the chapter from their books. Later, when they find the Welton annual from Keating’s senior year, the boys pore over his entry and notice “Dead Poets Society” listed as one of his interests. When they ask him about it, Keating explains that he and his friends used to gather at an Indian cave on school grounds and read poems by the Romantics, in addition to their own works. Inspired, Neil forms a new Dead Poets Society, including the free-spirited Charlie Dalton, bookish Steven Meeks, strait-laced Richard Cameron, Gerard Pitts, Knox, and Todd, who agrees to participate by taking meeting minutes instead of reading aloud. Keating leaves Five Centuries of Verse, the book used by the original Dead Poets Society, in the dormitory for Neil to find. At their first meeting in the cave, Neil reads Keating’s opening statement, scrawled inside the book, a quote from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. For the rest of the meeting, the boys share food hoarded from the dining hall, read poems, and listen to Charlie Dalton’s original verse. In another class, Keating asks the students to stand on top of his desk to gain new perspective and find their own voice. He assigns the boys to write an original poem, to be read aloud the following Monday, and tells Todd he knows the assignment must terrify him. Later, as Todd works on his poem, Neil announces plans to audition for a local production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Todd remarks that Neil’s father will not approve, but Neil does not intend to tell him, insisting that he is going to do what he wants for the first time in his life. After he wins the role of “Puck,” Neil forges permission notes from Nolan and his father. Back in class, Knox reads his love poem, “To Chris,” aloud, and the boys mock him. Keating calls Todd to the front of class, but he refuses, saying he did not complete the assignment. The teacher encourages Todd to believe in himself and draws him out of his seat. Upon Keating’s prompts, Todd composes an impromptu poem that impresses his classmates. At another Dead Poets Society meeting, Charlie plays saxophone and Knox complains that he will kill himself if he cannot have Chris. He is inspired to call her, and Chris invites him to a party at Chet’s house. When Keating takes his class into a courtyard and asks three boys to walk together, the boys quickly match their strides and begin to march. Keating uses their behavior to demonstrate the dangers of conformity, then encourages the boys to establish their own style of walking as Nolan observes the exercise from afar. That night, Neil finds Todd sitting alone with a shrink-wrapped desk set. He admits that it is his birthday, and his parents sent him the same gift they sent the year before. Neil makes light of the situation by suggesting the desk set is aerodynamic and encouraging Todd to toss it over a ledge. Knox goes to Chet’s party and gets drunk, eventually sitting down next to a sleeping Chris and daring to kiss her forehead. As his friend points out the transgression, Chet attacks Knox and threatens him to stay away. Charlie tells the others that he entered a column in the school newspaper on behalf of the Dead Poets Society, demanding that girls be admitted to Welton. The group panics as Nolan announces an inquiry into the offending article. Charlie confesses and receives corporal punishment, but refuses to name his cohorts. Later, Keating reprimands Charlie, telling him to use better judgment. Although Neil’s father finds out about his participation in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and forbids him from appearing onstage, Neil decides to perform anyway, lying to Keating that his father reluctantly gave him permission. Meanwhile, Knox goes to Chris’s school and reads her a poem in front of classmates. In turn, she comes to Welton to warn him that Chet plans to retaliate, but Knox charms her with his persistence and convinces her to accompany him to Neil’s play. With Keating and the Dead Poets Society in the audience, Neil delivers a bravura performance as “Puck”; however, his father arrives during the play and forces him to return home after the performance, announcing plans to remove Neil from Welton and enroll him in a military academy. Devastated, Neil waits until his parents are asleep, then retrieves a gun from his father’s desk and shoots himself. Hearing the gunshot, Mr. Perry rushes downstairs to find his son’s dead body. Nolan announces to grieving students that an investigation into Neil’s death will be conducted. At a meeting of the Dead Poets Society, Cameron reveals that he confessed about the group to Nolan, who plans to implicate Keating in Neil’s suicide. Only Charlie is unwilling to comply with Nolan’s investigation, and he is expelled. The others sign a document that claims Keating abused his authority and encouraged Neil to perform onstage despite his father’s disapproval. Keating is fired, and Nolan arrives to take over his class. He begins by asking Cameron to read from the Understanding Poetry chapter that was ripped out upon Keating’s orders. A frustrated Nolan provides his own text for Cameron to read, while Keating arrives to collect his personal belongings. Todd apologizes for signing the letter, then stands on his desk and says, “O captain, my captain.” Nolan shouts at him to get down, but Knox follows suit, as do Pitts and Meeks. Before he leaves, half the students stand on their desks, and Keating tells the boys, “Thank you.”  

Distribution Company: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc.
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures
Silver Screen Partners IV
Witt-Thomas Productions
Director: Peter Weir (Dir)
  Duncan Henderson (Unit prod mgr)
  Alan B. Curtiss (1st asst dir)
  B. Thomas Seidman (2d asst dir)
  Brian T. Fong (2d 2d asst dir)
  John Rusk (2d 2d asst dir)
Producer: Steven Haft (Prod)
  Paul Junger Witt (Prod)
  Tony Thomas (Prod)
  Duncan Henderson (Assoc prod)
Writer: Tom Schulman (Wrt)

Subject Major: Adolescents
  Preparatory schools
  Secret societies
Subject Minor: Actors and actresses
  Fathers and sons
  Henry David Thoreau
  Latin language
  Romantic rivalry
  Unrequited love
  Walt Whitman
  William Shakespeare

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
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