Years ago I entered a classroom, sat on a desk facing my students, and was so astounded by the vacant looks on their faces that I invited them to come up and sit on the desk beside me to share the view.
“Is this a ‘Dead Poets Society’ thing?” one of them asked.
Why, yes, I suppose it was. But teachers were trying anything they could think of to wake up their students long before Robin Williams won his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of prep-school English teacher John Keating. Still, who can forget Williams-as-Keating inviting his students out into the hallway to look at pictures of long-dead former students and challenging them to “seize the day,” because before they knew it they would be “fertilizing daffodils,” just like those boys from the class of 1900.
“Dead Poets Society” inspired young people and gave a boost to the humanities because, as Keating told his students, “Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love . . . these are what we stay alive for.”
Filmed at St. Andrew’s School in Delaware, “The Dead Poets Society” tells the story of an inspirational teacher whose unconventional methods raise eyebrows and the ire of adults–especially after tragedy befalls one of the students whom he inspired to revive a Dead Poets Society club that he participated in while a student himself at Welton Academy. A good teacher plants the seed and knows that real learning takes place outside the classroom, because that’s where students aren’t force-fed information. Those who learn outside the classroom do so because they’re self-motivated, and learning outside the classroom is frankly more fun and exciting than anything anyone experiences while listening to lectures or watching a hand scrawl key points across a chalk board. Keating’s students grow so excited about poetry that they read aloud to each other in the same secret cave by night that he once shared with students of his own era, and this legacy, more than the school’s that was drilled into their heads during indoctrination, is what matters.
Of course, Keating was subtly encouraging him to break the rules, as this group has to sneak off-campus at night to hold their poetry-reading sessions. Unlike educators who merely teach their subjects and leave the students’ problems to counselors, Keating gets involved. He helps a shy boy express himself and backs him when that expression turns out to be a rather revolutionary article in the school newspaper. And he tries to give advice to another student whose father is overbearing and overprotective. Problems with girls? He’ll weigh in on that, too. Involvement is always an act of risk-taking, and that’s the direction the plot goes. And the ending? It’s one of the most memorable and moving you’ll find in cinema . . . or one of the sappiest. It’ll depend on your take.
Director Peter Weir (“The Mosquito Coast,” The Truman Show”) pulls a sensitive performance out of Williams and gets the comic to dial it down a bit from the manic improvisations he turned out in “Good Morning, Vietnam.” And it fits the tenor of this story and the whole notion of what a rebel teacher at a prep school might look like. Then too, it helps to have an intelligent screenplay–one which earned an Oscar for writer Tom Schulman. It was the only Academy Award the film received after four nominations (Best Actor, Best Director, Best Picture), but Williams did win a Golden Globe for his performance.
The young cast is quite good too, with Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, Gale Hansen, Dylan Kussman, Allelon Ruggiero, and James Waterston believable as students and friends who are willing to break out of Welton’s tradition of conformity and conservatism.
It was a tough year for a film like “Dead Poets Society” to compete for Best Picture. The competition–“My Left Foot,” “Field of Dreams,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Driving Miss Daisy”–made it a coin toss for many voters. But it remains one of Williams’ best performances.
“Dead Poets Society” isn’t as impressive in HD as “Good Morning, Vietnam” was, partly, one suspects, because the source materials weren’t as pristine and partly because the palette is a little drabber with abundant low-light shots posing challenges. There’s more in the way of grain and the edges aren’t quite as well defined. Close-ups still reveal a decent amount of detail, though. “Dead Poets Society” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio and comes to Blu-ray via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer. Other than a few instances of ghosting, there was nothing in the transfer to detract from this excellent film.
The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and French. Like Williams’ performance, the soundtrack is restrained, driven by dialogue and, at times, Maurice Jarre’s score. The bass never gets terribly involved, but that’s not by deficiency. It’s by design, with most of the audio falling in the mid-tone range. Treble on the high end is sufficient, meanwhile, but nothing to get excited about.
Ported over from the Special Edition DVD is “Dead Poets: A Look Back,” a 26-minute extra that includes just about everyone involved with the project except Williams, who must have been filming elsewhere or wanting more money than studios are willing to pay for bonus features. Also included is “Raw Takes” deleted from the final print, “Master of Sound: Alan Splet” (an 11-minute look at effects) and “Cinematography Master Class,” a 14-minute extra that aired on Australian television. Disney-Touchstone also figured out a way to port over the audio commentary by Weir, Seale, and Schulman–one of the better commentaries because of the wealth of insights the trio provides. But there are no new features created especially for the Blu-ray.
My colleague, John J. Puccio, really hated this film and said so in his review. I still find it well done, even if the story of an inspirational teacher is one we’ve seen before, whether in a traditional film like “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” (1939) or a less conventional one like “To Sir, with Love” (1967). In “Dead Poets,” Williams keeps a stiff upper lip, showing a more sedate and sensitive side, and the Oscar-winning screenplay provides a strong backbone.