There are some films that, if you watch them for the first time at the right age, have the capacity to inspire and embolden you: Dead Poets Society is one such film. It is not a film that it is cool to admit loving. It is uncynical, idealistic and hopeful – not qualities one necessarily associates with film snobs, but what it lacks in critical kudos it has recouped in audience appreciation. It has been voted the greatest school film and it is often cited by viewers as one of the most inspirational films of all time. It certainly inspired me at a time when I most needed it.
I was 19 years old, in my first year at university in Manchester and living away from home for the first time. I saw Dead Poets Society, on my own, at the Odeon cinema on Oxford Road in the autumn of 1989. Superficially the film – directed by Peter Weir and written by Tom Schulman – depicted a world very different to mine. It was set in Vermont in 1959. Welton Academy – the elite private boys school featured in the film – had nothing in common with the Luton comp I had attended.
But scratch the veneer of privilege enjoyed by the boys at Welton and the parallels between my life and theirs became more apparent. Neil Perry, Todd Anderson and the other students endured constraints that seemed very familiar. In an early scene the boys are reminded of the four pillars that were the foundation to a Welton education: tradition, honour, excellence and discipline. Those same pillars shaped my family upbringing. My parents never said “We expect great things from you” (as Neil Perry’s father says to him) but my father often said “I made a great many sacrifices to get you here and you will not let me down”. I, like the students in Dead Poets Society, felt weighed down under the fearsome load of duty and obligation. Perhaps that’s why I was captivated by Robin Williams’s portrayal of John Keating, the unorthodox teacher who harnesses the power of literature to open his pupils’ minds. Watching Williams’s (mercifully restrained) performance I found myself wishing my English teachers had been as inspiring. It is through Keating – and he was based on a real teacher who had taught screenwriter Tom Schulman – that the boys slowly learn to emerge from under the shadow of expectation. That theme resonated with me; that the battle between idealism and obligation is a brutal one to fight whether one is a privileged white boy in 50s America or a young working class British Pakistani in 80s Manchester.
I saw Dead Poets Society when I was living away from my family but still in their shadow. Some weeks earlier I had seen an advertisement on the wall of the student union to work in the United States during the following summer. The prospect of visiting America – the promised land – seemed deliciously tantalising, but my father had dismissed the notion. Why spend the summer in America, he reasoned, when I could spend it making money working in Luton? I thought long and hard about how to reason with him, how to persuade him to change his mind, but nothing I said made any difference. The idea of America slowly began to slip away. And then I saw Dead Poets Society and I heard for the first time the words “Carpe diem”. Seize the day. It is hard to try and describe the power that those words had on me, but they genuinely gave me the courage to stand up for what I wanted. I told my father that I was going to America, with or without his approval. I am not certain I would have found the courage to have defied my father – who, when faced with my certainty ended up offering to pay for my plane ticket – were it not for having seen the film.
That was the past. In the intervening years I have rarely returned to Dead Poets Society. Unlike my other favourite films – Annie Hall, Unforgiven, Goodfellas, Beautiful Girls – it did not appear to withstand revisiting. When I recently watched it again, as a 40-year-old recent father, I found in some ways the film had not aged well. The adult characters seemed too crudely drawn; the hopes and dreams of the fathers – and one assumes, the mothers – too easily dismissed. My loyalties were now more divided: I sympathised with Neil Perry’s dreams of becoming an actor but I also understood why his father had reservations.
Revisiting Dead Poets Society again I was struck less by the depiction of generational conflict and more by what I now consider the film’s dominant theme. This is not a film, ultimately, about school or poetry or teaching: it is about death. It is there in the opening image of the film, where a young boy prepares for school while above him hangs a painting of long dead former pupils. Death literally looks down. It is death that provides the propulsive force behind John Keating’s lessons to his class. It is there in one of the first lines of poetry he shares with his pupils: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old Time is still a-flying: And this same flower that smiles to-day To-morrow will be dying”. And it is there in my favourite scene of the film, where Keating ushers his young pupils towards the black–and–white photographs displayed in a glass cabinet of former pupils of the school. “They’re not that different from you, are they?,” he says as the camera slowly pans from the faces in the photograph to the boys in his class. “Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel … They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you … these boys are now fertilising daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you … Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.
It is a powerful scene and one more relevant to me than when I first saw it all those years ago. When I watch Dead Poets Society I am reminded that time is precious; that, in the words of Bob Dylan, he not busy being born is busy dying. Dead Poets Society teaches us to resolve to lead lives of passion and conviction, mindful of the fact that in the story of our lives the script is ours to write, but the ending has long been decided.
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