Tradition, honor, discipline, Excellence. That’s the kind of propaganda the profs are filling students’ heads with at stuffy Welton Academy, tucked away in the hills of Vermont. It’s 1959. The activist Sixties are about to dawn, but you wouldn’t know it from these priggish preps. They need a wake-up call. They get it from the new English teacher, a firebrand named John Keating. The picture gets it from Robin Williams, who plays Keating. Williams doesn’t shout, “Good mooornin’, Vermont!” when he makes an entrance. (It’s more like “Gather ye rosebuds” or “Seize the day.”) But he sure can light up a classroom. Keating does impressions (his John Wayne as Macbeth is a lulu), introduces poetry into soccer games and persuades these flattops that Whitman, Byron and Keats can offer relevant advice on everything from picking a career to wooing women. To his cult of seven (the Dead Poets Society of the title), Williams is — egad, what an image — Robert Donat in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Sidney Poitier in To Sir, With Love and Maggie Smith in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie rolled into one. And while he’s having fun teaching the boys how to find what’s lively in the arts, we have fun, too.
Then the picture takes a dramatic swerve into melodrama. Everybody knows the film’s Australian director, Peter Weir, makes serious films — a few of them splendid, serious films. But you don’t look for laughs in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, Witness or The Mosquito Coast. And you don’t find many here, despite the protean efforts of Williams. Weir even laces the early scenes with foreboding. Norman Lloyd, Dr. Auschlander on TV’s departed St. Elsewhere, plays Welton’s headmaster with a touch more menace than necessary. Is Tom Schulman, who wrote the original screenplay, trying to mirror the Eighties with these careerist, conservative, uncaring isolationists of the Fifties?
Nothing wrong if he is. Except that the idea is hardly original, and Schulman’s dialogue is stupefyingly banal. The subplots devised for each of the seven boys should transcend the conventions of the time; instead, they typify them. There’s the leader (Robert Sean Leonard), the introvert (Ethan Hawke), the romantic (Josh Charles), the rebel (Gale Hansen), the outsider (Dylan Kussman), the underdog (Allelon Ruggiero) and the loser (Jamie Waterson). I’m surprised Schulman didn’t try to squeeze in Sneezy, Sleepy and Dopey.
All seven young actors acquit themselves honorably. Leonard does even better than that as the boy whose dream of a life in the theater is crushed by a ramrod father. But in the school-play sequence, we aren’t permitted to discover Leonard’s budding talent on our own. Comments from the crowd, such as “He’s good, he’s really good,” cue us how to think.
As the movie continues to accentuate the obvious and descends into doom, dishonor and death, Williams and the boys have nowhere to go with their performances except the inevitable tear-jerker conclusion. Many people cried at the screening I attended. I sniffled, too. For the movie that might have been.