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June 2, 1989 – The Touchstone Film Dead Poets Society is Initially Released to Theaters

“Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

On June 2, 1989, the film Dead Poets Society was initially released to theaters, with a general release on June 9th. Distributed by Touchstone Pictures, it won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for Tom Schulman, who based it on his own life at a private school in Tennessee. It was directed by Peter Weir, and stars Robin Williams as John Keating, Robert Sean Leonard as Neal Perry, Ethan Hawke as Todd Anderson, and Josh Charles as Knox Overstreet.

Set in 1959, the movie starts with the beginning of Welton Academy’s traditional opening ceremony, where several of the main characters are seen carrying in banners with the titles “Tradition,” “Excellence,” and “Discipline.” The dean brags about the school’s achievements, calling it the best preparatory school in the United States. He then introduces the new teacher of the English department, Mr. John Keating, who has been teaching in London, and is an alumnus of Welton Academy. We then catch a glimpse of a few of the boys with their parents, and Neal Perry, one of the shining stars of the academy, meets Todd Anderson, his new roommate. Todd’s brother attended Welton, and Neal remarks, “Oh, so you’re that Anderson.”

Todd meets Neal and his friends for the first time as they talk about their study group

As Neal and Todd move into their room, Neal’s friends Knox Overstreet, Charlie Dalton, and Steven Meeks appear to talk about their summer and joke about their study group, to which they reluctantly add Richard Cameron, whom they describe as a “boot-licker.” Neal mentions Todd’s brother, who was valedictorian and national merit scholar, which seems to cause Todd some embarrassment. Neal’s father enters the room, and lets Neal know that he will be dropping the school yearbook from his extracurriculars. Neal argues that he’s the assistant editor, but his father will hear none of it, letting Neal know that after Neal graduates medical school and is on his own “then you can do what you damn well please.” Until then, he is to follow only his father’s orders. Neal acquiesces, but looks hurt that he has to give up the yearbook.

The first day of school shows the boys being loaded with what appears to be more work than they can handle, from science, to Latin, to trigonometry. When the boys get into English class, Mr. Keating enters whistling the 1812 Overture, and walks out of the room, to the astonishment of the class. When he tells them to follow, they are confused, but they finally leave. Keating takes them to the main lobby, where he teaches them about the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, and that they may call him “O Captian! My Captain!” if they feel slightly more daring. He then teaches them one of the most important lessons in the film: carpe diem. “We are food for worms, lads,” he reminds them, explaining how life is too short.

Mr. Keating pulls his class close, explaining the powerful impact language has on life

During the next English class, Neal is asked to read the introduction, and Keating tells them that he can’t stand the introduction, equating it to American Bandstand: “Well, I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it.” He then asks him to rip out the entire introduction. “In my class, you will learn to think for yourselves again,” he informs them. “You will learn to savor words and language. No matter what anybody tells you, words and language can change the world.”

The boys find Keating’s yearbook, and discover that he was a member of the Dead Poets Society, leaving them to wonder what that means. They approach and ask him what it was, and Keating is a bit hesitant, as he thinks the administration might not favor it. But explains that he and his friends would sit around letting the words of poetry “drip from their mouths like honey.” Neal is inspired to begin the society again, and with the help of Keating and his old poetry book, they decide to meet. Neal asks Todd to come, but Todd is very shy and declines. But Neal persists, and finally the boys sneak out, beginning the first meeting of the Dead Poets Society.

Although Neal is initially elated about discovering his passion, he becomes infuriated that the shy Todd seems to not be effected by anything Mr. Keating has to to say

The English classes continue, with Keating reading Shakespeare in humorous ways from imitating Marlon Brando and John Wayne, to having the students stand on his desk to see things in a new perspective. After class, Neal lets Todd know that he has finally decided what he wants to do with his life: he wants to become an actor. He decides to audition for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, screaming “Carpe Diem!” Neal then chews Todd out for not being stirred up by anything, thinking that Todd has not been affected by anything Mr. Keating has said. Todd argues that when Neal speaks, people listen, and he’s not like Neal. But Neal won’t take that for an answer, and is determined to stir up something in Todd.

Neal then announces he got the part of Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and forges the letters of permission from his father and the dean. Todd slowly begins to discover a love of writing with Keating’s poetry assignment. Unfortunately, he was unable to come up with a poem he found acceptable to present. Keating pushes him out of his comfort zone, making him come up with a poem on the spot. Keating has finally reached him, and Todd is able to open up.

Charlie plays a prank at the assembly, pretending God has called to tell the Dean to admit women in the school

Things begin to go downhill for the Dead Poets Society, when Charlie publishes an article in the school paper in the club’s name to demand that their school go co-ed. He gets himself into trouble by pretending that God has called in the middle of an assembly, saying they should have girls at Welton. Charlie is then punished by getting paddled, but does not give up the members of the club.

Neal begins practices for the play, but comes back one night to find that his father has found out and is furious. He demands that Neal quit, although the play is the next night. “I made a great many sacrifices to get you here, Neal, and you will not let me down,” he warns his son. Neal tells him he will quit, but later that night, he goes to talk with Mr. Keating, who advises him to show his father what’s in his heart, where his passion lies, before opening night. Neal decides to stay with the play, lying to Mr. Keating, saying his father is letting him stay with the play.

Unable to live the life his father has decided for him, and unable to have a life of his own, Neal resorts to not living at all

Neal shines in the play as Puck, and his father walks in to see the performance, and Neal’s standing ovation. Infuriated by his son’s disobedience, he pulls his Neal out of school, taking him home and informing him that he will be enrolled in military school. Unable to live the life his father has decided for him anymore, Neal takes a gun from his father’s study late that night and shoots himself.

The mood at Welton is somber as they hear the news of Neal’s death. Todd is hysterical, blaming Neal’s father. Mr. Keating is also overcome with emotion when he hears the news, sitting at Neal’s desk and crying. At the request of Neal’s family, the school conducts an investigation as to why he took his life. Charlie accuses Cameron of telling the board of directors all about the club, and Cameron doesn’t deny it, as he wants to save his own skin by putting Mr. Keating on the line. When he tells the group that they should “let Keating fry,” Charlie loses it and punches Cameron, leading to Charlie’s immediate expulsion. When Todd is questioned by the school, they say that it was Mr. Keating’s actions that led to Neal’s death. Mr. Keating is then fired by the school.

Half of the class stands on their desks, showing their admiration for Mr. Keating, their Captain

The English class is taken over by the Dean, who wants them to read the introduction that they had all ripped out. As Mr. Keating leaves the classroom after collecting his personal belongings, Todd shoots up and admits the truth to Mr. Keating, who tells Todd that he understands. Todd isn’t done, as he gets up on his desk and calls, “O Captain! My Captain!” He is then followed by most of the class, including Knox, Pitts, and Meeks. With a smile, Mr. Keating thanks them, knowing he has made a difference in their lives.


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