Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “Dead Poets Society”

School is starting up again for the fall term, and while the worry and fear of COVID-19 is prevalent, ‘To Touchstone and Beyond’ is celebrating the new school year with a classic school film from the 1980s, Dead Poets Society.

This Robin Williams movie will bring you back to the 1950’s and take you to a boys’ private school, Welton Academy. Get ready to be inspired and maybe shed a tear or two as you watch this sprawling coming of age story.

The Movie

It’s a new school term at Welton Academy, and this all male student body is welcomed back to a new year. At the welcoming ceremony they are introduced to their new English teacher John Keating, played by Robin Williams. As the parents depart and the boys settle into their dorm, we meet two veteran students named Neal and Knox, played by Robert Sean Leonard and Josh Charles, and transfer student Todd, played by Ethan Hawke.

As Todd makes friends with his roommate Neal, then Knox and the rest of their friends, we start to meet other boys who come in and out of their social circle. When their first class with Mr. Keating starts, the boys are enthralled by the way Keating approaches learning. Unlike other teachers, who recite the curriculum and the extreme workload, Keating challenges the boys to think for themselves. Using his favorite poet, Keating tells the boys to suck the marrow out of life and that they should seize the day.

While the term progresses, the boys continue to work diligently at their studies, but inspired by Keating, they research his past at Welton and learn that Keating was a founding member of the Dead Poets Society. When asked about it, Keating informs the boys that he and his friends would sneak out at night to a cave nearby where they would recite poetry by flashlight. Copying Keating, Neal leads the boys to recreate the Dead Poets Society.

Todd starts to overcome his shyness through his friendship with Neal, and Knox meets a girl in town who he falls madly in love with. Neal too finds a passion in acting and earns a part in a local play, which angers his father, played by Kurtwood Smith. Neal’s dad has controlled his life and often tells him what to do. Whether it was taking chemistry in summer school or quitting his position as assistant editor for the school newspaper, Mr. Perry’s goal is to have Neal graduate and then go to Harvard to become a doctor. Neal is very much at the mercy of his father.

Defying the wishes of his father, Neal continues with the play, only to see his dad show up on opening night. After the play, which Neal received a standing ovation for, Mr. Perry takes Neal home and tells him that he will be pulled from Welton Academy the next day and sent to a military school.

That night, Neal is despondent and hits a breaking point. Always being under the thumb of his authoritarian father, Neal sneaks out of his room after his parents go to bed and finds his father’s gun in the study. Sitting at his father’s desk, Neal who has suffered from authoritarian rule, commits suicide. His death is felt immediately at Welton Academy, and Neal’s parents blame Mr. Keating. The headmaster of the school Mr. Nolan, played by Norman Lloyd, starts questioning the members of the Dead Poets Society. Each member of the group including Knox and Todd sign a paper admitting that Keating inspired them, and it was his teachings that could have led to Neal taking his own life.

Keating is fired, but before leaving his classroom one last time, the members of the Dead Poets Society stand on their desks and praise their teacher much to the chagrin of the angered Mr. Nolan.

The Best Moments on Screen

Robin Williams is brilliant in this movie. From his first moment on screen at the welcoming ceremony to the last minute of walking out of the classroom, Williams gives everything to this movie. There are moments where Williams gets to be manic and silly, but the pure brilliance of Williams is that he shows those moments of mania, but in a refined and subtle way, while portraying a gifted teacher who inspires his students. There are so many scenes in the film that show how inspiring Robin Williams’ performance is, but the two that stand out the most are when he first meets his students and calls them out to the trophy room, which sets the stage to challenge his students to think for themselves. When Neal dies, Keating is alone in the classroom and stops and sits at Neal’s desk. The raw emotion that Williams displays lets the audience see his character in a raw form. Keating grieves the death of Neal, crying alone at his desk, and because of Robin Williams, we feel his pain on the screen.  

Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke are the perfect pairing. While Hawk plays the shy reluctant one, Leonard is the powerful presence that brings him along and gives him a life amongst the students of Welton. Hawk and Leonard play perfectly off Robin Williams. Both Leonard and Hawk plays kids who are hurting in very different ways, but they also learn and grow from their relationship.

Peter Weir was a master behind the camera on Dead Poets Society. He is restrained in showing the passing of time, from endless scenes of birds flying by to the snow fall, Weir knows when to bring the power of the moment and change up his style. The scene where Ethan Hawke is supposed to recite a poem in front of the class but refuses, then gets coaxed by Williams to come back and try again is beautiful. This is the moment when Hawk’s Todd wants to run away and sit down, but Williams, with Weir’s direction, circles the petrified Hawk coaxing him to recite his poem. Hawk does so, and the constant spinning of the camera following Williams as he circles the stationary Hawk is a masterpiece in building tension for a non-suspenseful moment. The audience feels the fright of Todd standing before his class reciting his poem because of how Weir filmed that scene.  

The Worst Moments on Screen

When Neal kills himself, the scene is heartbreaking. The audience understands why he does the deed, but it doesn’t make the moment any less painful. Neal Perry is a great kid with a bright future who was under too much strain. Did he kill himself because of what Mr. Keating taught him? No! Neal killed himself because he was living under the thumb of his father whose plans for his son were more important than what Neal wanted to do. Had Mr. Keating not been at Welton, the same outcome would have happened for Neal, I’m certain of it. A person can only last so long when they are under so much pressure. For Neal, his only way out of the pain that he felt was to kill himself. No one will watch that scene and not shed a tear.

Film Facts

  • Dustin Hoffman was originally going to direct and star as Keating.
  • Robin Williams improvised the bits where he did an impression of John Wayne and Marlon Brando. Director Peter Weir liked it so much he kept it in the film.
  • The cave where the Dead Poets Society held their meetings was a set on a soundstage.
  • Producers estimate almost fifteen percent of Robin Williams dialogue in the film was improvised by the actor.
  • Jeff Kanew, director of Tough Guys, was also in line to direct the film with Liam Neeson starring as Keating.
  • The movie was filmed in Delaware.

See It/Skip It?

See It! Dead Poets Society is a fantastic movie that has depth and detail that will be found for years to come in subsequent viewings. This film helped audiences see the raw power that Robin Williams had on screen and will certainly speak to many today about the stresses of life and a positive mental health outlook. The best part about this film is that while we see a version of the standard story arcs no one in the film is a villain. The true villain in Dead Poets Society is the notion of control and a lack of freedom. This becomes amplified when one has an awakening to their true potential and the power of knowing they can chart their own path. No matter the year or generation this film will always speak to an audience because the moviegoer can relate to the issues that these characters feel in the movie.

Next week we look at another school themed film starring Robin Williams, Jack.


Director: Peter Weir

Production Company: Touchstone Pictures

Principal Cast:

  • Robin Williams as John Keating
  • Robert Sean Leonard as Neal Perry
  • Ethan Hawke as Todd
  • Josh Charles as Knox
  • Kurtwood Smith as Mr. Perry
  • Norman Lloyd as Mr. Nolan

Release Date: June 9, 1989

Budget: $17 million

Box Office Gross Domestic = $95,860,116

                      Worldwide = $235,860,116

Bill Gowsell
Bill Gowsell has loved all things Disney since his first family trip to Walt Disney World in 1984. Since he began writing for Laughing Place in 2014, Bill has specialized in covering the Rick Riordan literary universe, a retrospective of the Touchstone Pictures movie library, and a variety of other Disney related topics. When he is not spending time with his family, Bill can be found at the bottom of a lake . . . scuba diving