Movie Review: Was Robin Williams the Villain of Dead Poets Society?

Before you say anything, yes, I am aware that Dead Poets Society came out over twenty years ago, and yes, I am aware that it stars Robert Sean Leonard, who does not appear to have aged a day as Dr. James Wilson on House. (This made for some confusing cross-signals watching the film. All Ethan Hawke needed was some stubble and a limp.) I’m driven to write a review of this old movie because of the film’s reputation, especially as an inspiring story about teaching, and because of my growing view over the course of the film that something in Robin Williams‘ classroom had gone horribly, horribly wrong.

Williams plays Mr. John Keating, an alumnus of an elite New England prep school who has been hired as the school’s English teacher and whose class includes Neil Perry (Leonard) and Todd Anderson (Hawke). Perry aspires to be an actor but his over-bearing father is determined that he attend Harvard and go on to medical school, while Anderson is a new student with a phobia of public speaking. Inspired by Keating to delve deeper into the joys of poetry, Perry, Anderson, and their friends find a copy of Keating’s old poetry reader in the school library, marked up with his name and an inscription from the Dead Poets Society. Finding that the DPS was a secret society devoted to underground poetry, led by Keating during his prep school days, the friends re-establish the DPS and are soon embarked on individual missions of self-discovery. These missions soon go awry – Perry commits suicide after his father threatens to send him to military school, and another boy is expelled for defying the school administration after Keating is sacked for his role in the suicide. The film ends on a triumphant note, with Anderson and others staging a protest in support of Keating in the final scene. But I could not watch the scene with anything approaching a positive emotion. I was horrified at the glorification of Keating’s irresponsibility as a teacher.

Dead Poets Society is often touted as a film about self-empowerment and the positive role a good teacher can have in our lives. A worthy sentiment, but that is not the film I saw. I saw a film in which a reckless teacher admonishes his students to “seize the day!” without any regard for the consequences. What begins as innovative learning in the classroom soon spirals out of control, with one student, unable to tell the difference between class and real life, publishing an incendiary article in the school newspaper that nearly leads to his expulsion. Keating’s response? A clap on the shoulder and a reminder not to push things too far.

That in and of itself would be acceptable as a “teachable moment” were it not for what follows. Perry, forbidden by his father to take part in a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after having faked dad’s signature on the consent form), goes to Keating for advice on what to do. Keating, moved by the boy’s emotional turmoil, advises him to confront his father about his own desires versus his father’s desire to send him to medical school. Perry agrees with some trepidation, but by the end of the play performance it is clear that no such conversation took place, and that the boy had continued in his deception and defiance. The story climaxes in a confrontation at the Perry home, in which Mr. Perry informs his son that he will be sent to military school. In despair, young Perry shoots himself while his parents sleep.

This is where the movie loses me. As viewers, we are supposed to believe that Keating is a victim of the ensuing witch hunt as the school administrators look for a scapegoat. The administrators end up extorting signed statements out of the other members of the DPS, under threat of expulsion, that exonerates themselves while placing all the blame on Keating as the instigator of events. Despite the bad faith of the administrators, I could not view the search for responsibility as discreditable. While Keating had not directly encouraged any other of the boys’ behavior, he had encouraged them to seize the day without any sort of limits on their behavior, and had gone even further with Perry by directly inserting himself into the family’s affairs.

Keating failed as a teacher on two fronts. He led his enthusiastic and credulous students to believe that behaving with license was a good and desirable thing to do. Yes, it had some positive outcomes, but it had many negative ones as well as the students pushed boundaries further and further with little or no pushback. Keating’s enthusiasm in pushing his students to break boundaries is far more evident than any importance he places on teaching them the acceptable limits of their behavior. Indeed, his entire pedagogical style, from defacing textbooks to standing on desks, seems entirely destructive in nature. He can tear down rules but is not capable of raising up new ones. The predictable result is what we see – students expelled, homes broken, a life lost. A teacher worthy of praise would teach his students to be better human beings, not lead them down the path of self-destruction.

But lead them down that path Keating does. With one student dead and another expelled, Keating commits his final outrage in the closing scene of the film. Dismissed from his teaching post, Keating shows up at his classroom to collect his things at the same time that the headmaster is convening the poetry class. Anderson, finally overcoming his phobia, jumps to the top of his desk in salute to his former teacher. While the headmaster threatens them with expulsion, the surviving DPS members follow Anderson while Keating looks on with an enigmatic smile. The movie ends.

This scene is supposed to be inspiring, but I just found it sad to watch Keating wreak his final act of damage on his impressionable students. Given that the character is evidently able to tell time, I can only assume that he showed up in the classroom with the intent of seeing his students and provoking an incident. He clearly makes no effort to get Anderson and the others to sit down, and in fact tacitly encourages them by lingering and not leaving the room. The students, in turn, demonstrate blind loyalty but no ability to actually think about the consequences of what they are doing. Ironically, it was the students who did not participate in DPS who wisely keep their heads down, avoid eye contact, and presumably avoid expulsion. It is the non-participants who show the greatest ability to think for themselves in this scene.

Keating’s track record of one student dead and another half dozen or more expelled does not seem like the legacy of a successful teacher. It seems like the legacy of a libertine who encourages students to do what they want, regardless of consequences, and of a megalomaniac who inserts himself into family quarrels and is willing to see his students suffer in exchange for emotional gratification. This is the first time I have seen this movie as an adult, having first seen it when I myself was in high school, and as an adult I am surprised that this film is taken seriously as an example of how we would want teachers to lead their students.

About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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4 Responses to Movie Review: Was Robin Williams the Villain of Dead Poets Society?

  1. I have some criticisms of your critique, Herr Clinkman.

    (1) It’s odd – you note that Keating specifically told Perry to confront his father and explain to him his dreams. Perry FAILS to take Keating’s advice and thus the stage is set for an even more dramatic and tragic showdown. And yet you blame Keating for meddling in the Perry family’s affairs? I could see how this would work if Perry had followed Keating’s advice and the disaster still occurred. But surely it’s a bit of a stretch to blame Keating for events that may have been prevented had his advice been heeded?

    (2) Your critique reads as if Keating was irresponsible for suggesting that his boys should ‘seize the day’ without placing limits on their actions. But it sounds as if all he has done (and I am basing this on, admittedly, my hazy memory of the film from long ago), is to tell them to follow their dreams and think for themselves. Can this really be construed as some kind of ‘irresponsible’ message? He hasn’t told them to blow up the White House. He’s encouraging them to consider their own dreams and lives, not just what their parents and society expects of them. Yes, this is fairly banal, liberal stuff, and perhaps its a fairly radical message in 1959. But is it irresponsible? If he encouraged them to go have unprotected sex and burn down the school, yes. But he seems to be doing what most good teachers are asked to do: open up their minds and get them to think for themselves. Yes, some of the consequences are unwanted, but is he responsible for that? I guess it comes down to this: to what extent is a teacher responsible for the behaviour of his students?

    (3) The reason, I think, that Keating doesn’t spend so much time teaching his students the ‘acceptable limits of behaviour’ is because that’s what they’ve learned from their parents, other teachers, and society in general. They already know about what’s acceptable behaviour and what is not. That has been drilled into them in the very culture of the school. They are supposed to conform to the standards that this stuffy, upper-crust New England prep school drills into them everyday. Keating is asking them to question that. He is playing the sceptic or the gadfly – sort of like Socrates, always questioning. You may think that he is acting too cavalier or radical by being such a person. But I think it’s asking too much of him – or any teacher – to devise a whole new set of rules of acceptable behaviour for his students to live by, once he has questioned the status quo. Of course, one of those rules is Carpe Diem. And if that’s too subversive, well, one might start to wonder about the values of the society/school in which that’s the case.

    (4) I think, in general, your critique assumes that Keating is a dangerous and subversive force upon his impressionable students, as if they are his unwitting victims. I have no doubt that the headmaster and the authorities at the school would be in complete agreement with you. But these students are not children. They are young adults. As you note, some of them reject his message. We must assume that they have some power to resist his message, if they want to. They do not appear to be victims of his megalomaniacal tyranny. He is but one teacher out of a number that they have, in a larger environment where he is shunned as too radical. They have plenty of other role models to look to, should they wish.

    (5) Recall, as well, that this happens on the cusp of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement. And if you think that the Civil Rights Movement – with its relentless questioning of the status quo and the demands for justice for all – was a good thing, it seems odd to cast Keating as the villain when he is inculcating those very values in his students, rather than a blind submission to what the authorities think is acceptable behaviour. Yes, there are times to keep one’s head down. And perhaps this is one of them (after all, the moral stakes here are quite low in comparison to Civil Rights). But I think Keating’s students – the ones who are moved by his teaching – are much more likely to go on and join, say, the Civil Rights Movement because they have been taught to question the authority of those in power. And they are starting to learn what kind of sacrifices it requires. The students you praise, the ones “who wisely keep their heads down, avoid eye contact, and presumably avoid expulsion” may well go on to be successful, but they also won’t be the ones who demand justice for their fellow citizens. I can only speak for myself, but I know which kinds of students I, as a teacher, would rather encourage. One can be a perfectly good conformist and rule-follower, without any sort of inspirational teacher. Indeed, one imagines that the truly inspirational, (dare I say it) life-changing teachers are precisely those who ask most from their students in the form of questioning their own assumptions and learning how to broaden their horizons. Isn’t that the whole point of education?

    I don’t write all this to convince you to change your mind about the film. I need to rewatch it myself. But, in a way, the film is besides the point. It invites larger questions about the responsibilities of a teacher and to what extent teaching is or could be a subversive activity – for better or ill.

    • Safa Manzoor says:

      I couldn’t agree more- Bravo Mr.Lupinus! As for Mr.Clinkman, Perry did suicide while being taught by Keating, but think about this: In the emotional rendezvous he had with Keating prior to the play, his dedication to his passion and his despairing perception of his hopes and dreams being crushed by his father are obvious- Keating did not inspire this sensitivity and emotion in him-Perry had always been that way. If it wasn’t for Keating, he would have been forced to bury away all his feelings in abidance with the school and his household’s teachings-and this, would have led to much greater consequences, for feelings and pain that have been forbidden expression only grow and expand till the holder of them can manage them no more, resulting in much more terrible consequences ( which is what exactly happened to Perry since Keating was a bit too late in arriving in his life.). Perry’s suicide, as I believe, followed his realization of the fact that his father, the ruler of his life, would never, as he never had, even do so much as glance towards his son’s feelings and situation, which were the world in Perry’s eyes. Keating had been a safe haven, a refuge, and provider of hope for the almost hopeless Perry who was trying hard to give life a last chance. This last chance he gave to it, was obviously inspired and encouraged by Keating, but his father, in accordance with his personality, soon blew out the last flame in his heart, leaving the passionate Perry choose to end his life rather than spending it with a heart strangled of what he held most dear to himself. If Keating had been given a chance, he was the only one currently in Perry’s life who would have been able to erase his heart and mind’s turmoil and inspire him to embrace life.
      Thus, Perry’s suicide was also a lesson for the rest of the students who chose to stand up for Keating- Do not repress your feelings, look forward to a new tomorrow, a tomorrow, which lies in your hands, no matter how many dictators may try to steal it away from you.

  2. MissO says:

    I just watched ‘DPS” for perhaps the tenth time this evening and yes, it is one of my favourite films, and yes, I am an English teacher who wants above all else, to inspire my students and encourage them to think for themselves. And I do get my kids to stand on tables sometimes. So, it troubles me then, that this review seems to suggest, well, blatantly accuse, the main character of Keaton to be abusing his position and encouraging dreadful and dangerous behaviour. And from this, to accuse the film of condoning irresponsible and dangerous teaching.

    The statement “Ironically, it was the students who did not participate in DPS who wisely keep their heads down, avoid eye contact, and presumably avoid expulsion. It is the non-participants who show the greatest ability to think for themselves in this scene.” is hugely incorrect; there were 6 boys in the society and far more standing on the desks in this final scene; showing that all the boys in the class exercise their right to behave as they see fit, regardless of whether they were in the club or not. Plus, “wisely” is not an adverb I would use t describe those that keep their heads down when an injustice is being carried out.

    There is no abuse of power and certainly no meddling with the boys’ families; he tells Neil to talk to his father. Neil ignores him and then lies. So, how can the ensuing tragedy be blamed on Keaton? The open auditions were advertised; Neil would have found them and gone anyway.

    As the comments in reply, above, this is not a debate on a film per se, but commentary on what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and encouragement from a teacher. There is none of this in the film, just a teacher who does not conform to the norms of the school he works at; if he was such a threat and a danger, would he really have been hired in the first place as the staff and faculty were well aware of his teaching methods before he came?

    Phew, that’s my rant over with. As I said, I watched the film again this evening as I enjoy it as one of my favourite films; I was quite disparaged to read the above review while I was searching for reviews of Robin Williams’ performance.

  3. lidz78 says:

    I disagree with this opinion.

    I would say that this opinion is in line with minimising risk, whereas the spirit of the film that Robin William’s character embodies is all to do with seeing the value in taking risks; that without risks there may be security and safety but the soul pays the price.

    Neil Perry’s character dies in the film, but the writer or Weir himself said that this was based on a talented friend who turned away from a promising creative career and opted for a ‘safe’ career despite how it was out of line with his fundamental nature and his parents steered him this way. So in reality the Neil Perry character commits creative suicide.

    The whole movie is about living creatively. About “Answering the Heroe’s call to Adventure”, as Joseph Campbell put it.

    Death and insecurity are not what they seem. Where there is risk there is possibility of failure, but without risk there can be no true success. No self made success.

    I would argue that Neil Perry was already considering suicide and was probably a ticking time bomb (observe his expression whe Keating reads the ‘gather yee rosebuds while ye may’ poem and follows with the interpretation of how we are all ‘food for daffodidils’ that we will all die). No, he was the smiling depressive, Neil Perry.

    He started out with the right approach needed to become an adult in his own right – a self made man. But he gave up.

    Not taking risks may be safer, but it represents a death of potential. It is a failure to live authentically. Following rules is for children. But an adult, if they are to be psychologically mature, must think for themselves, they must take risks and know when to and when it is right to break the rules.

    Following society blindly can also be dangerous -as Nazi Germany proved thoroughly.

    The Keating character is the Hero of the story. A tragic hero, perhaps, but he represents life. He may even have extended Neil Perry’s life.

    It’s interesting that you leave off of analysing the parents’ attitude towards their son and ignore the major part of the blame they had. And I agree that Keating offered Neil Perry a way out, but his depression overwhelmed him.

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