O captain, my captain. Most go through life living their lives a certain way; going to school and living out the life that our parents planned since infancy. The majority of those don’t even give it a second thought; they accept that their lives have been preordained by circumstance and don’t bother reaching for anything else. This is done all in the name of making our parents, teachers, and coaches proud. If you’re lucky, you will come across a film or book that truly inspires you. For me, that film was Dead Poets Society. While my life looked different from the boys attending Welton Academy, I was kindred in terms of dread from life before me that I was desperately trying to escape.
Youthful years are a juxtaposition of freeing yet frightening passion filled with mistakes and growth. Dead Poets Society follows students at a prestigious boarding school, hoping that if they follow the four pillars of tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence, they will go on to Ivy League schools. The Ivy League is the only way of becoming precisely what their parents envisioned like a doctor, banker, and lawyer. Before we meet John Keating (Robin Williams), there is a montage of the students in their other classes to showcase how Mr. Keating will be a different type of teacher.
Mr. Keating doesn’t just teach poetry; he lives, breathes, and lets it “drip from his lips like honey.” His first lesson onward highlights his teaching style outside the classroom instruction mixed with shaking their world to be free thinkers. A big problem with the humanities is how it is presented to students, especially students who don’t see the value in helping them get to their ultimate goal. One of my favorite lines in the film is how I feel about poetry, “this is a battle, a war, and the casualties could be your heart and souls.”
Carpe Diem is quoted at least five times in the film. The boys are first introduced during their first lesson with Mr. Keating. From that lesson, the different students use it as their mantra, and the idea of seizing the day motivates their actions. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) shouts the term carpe diem when he decides that he will audition for A Midsummer Night’s Dream as he keeps talking to Todd (Ethan Hawke) about the idea. He is hiding behind seizing the day because he doesn’t risk being disappointed if he doesn’t ask his dad. Once he gets the lead in the play, he continues to justify his actions and “seize the day” by writing his letter of permission for his father.
Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles) makes questionable decisions in the name of carpe diem as well. He calls Chris (Alexandra Powers), knowing she is already in a relationship. When he talks about her to his friends, he acknowledges that she is practically engaged. At the party she invites him to, she is on the couch (most likely drunk), and he whispers carpe diem to himself before he kisses her. Knox’s consequence is that he is beaten up by Chris’s boyfriend Chet (Colin Irving).
Dalton (Gale Hansen) arguably believes in transcendentalist ideas more than anyone else in the friend group. Dalton is the one who publishes an article in the school paper about letting girls into the school, even committing to that stance by having God “call” into the school in support of that agenda. After getting beaten with a paddle and getting threatened with expulsion, he maintains his sense of humor and allegiance to the group to his credit. Keating comes in to explain sucking the marrow doesn’t mean choking on the bone and carpe diem has a line that expulsion isn’t worth.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Perry (Kurtwood Smith) finds out about Neil’s participation in the play and sets the expectation for Neil to quit. Neil bares his soul to Mr. Keating about how acting means everything to him, and his dad never asked what he wanted while his dad was planning his life. Neil misses out on the greatest carpe diem moment he could have had. Mr. Keating urged him to show Mr. Perry his heart and be honest. Feeling trapped, he lies to everyone around him. He lies to Mr. Keating that his dad let him stay in the play and lied to his dad that he would quit. Mr. Perry shows up at the play, removes Neil from Welton, and sends him to military school to make sure Neil becomes a doctor. Feeling overwhelmed and trapped, Neil’s desperation for escape leads straight to suicide. While jumping off that cliff with his dad’s gun, tragically, Neil succumbed to the day instead of seizing it.
Fittingly, at the end of the film, Todd stands on his desk in solidarity with Mr. Keating. A poem can be about anything and the mousy Todd literally standing up for what is right is poetic. Todd told Neil that he isn’t like Neil because when Neil talks, people listen. In my opinion, this is the perfect cinematic moment. One by one, his classmates join him in getting on their desks to look at this awful situation differently and show respect to the captain. Mr. Keating thanking his students brings the film full-circle from when he uttered, “no matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”