Neil Perry: Robert Sean Leonard
Mr. Keating: Robin Williams
Todd Anderson: Ethan Hawke
Mr. Nolan, Headmaster
Mr. and Mrs. Perry
Mr. and Mrs. Danberry
Charlie (Nuwanda) Dalton
The story, set in a private school, chronicles one year in the life of a class of boys who are changed forever by the influence of one dynamic teacher.
Welton Academy is holding its opening cermony. Banners bearing the four pillars--tradition, honor, discipline and excellence--are brought in. The light of knowledge is passed from candle to candle. The boys and their families listen to the headmaster, Mr. Nolan, praising Welton as the best preparatory school in the United States.
After the ceremony, a new boy, Todd Anderson gets acquainted with the older boys Neil, Cameron, Knox, Charlie and Steven. Mr. Perry, Neil's father, visits his son in the dorm room and tells him that he must give up the School Annual (the school yearbook). Neil is upset by his father's dominating attitude, as are the other boys, but they all agree that it is difficult to do anything but obey.
School has begun: outside the clock tower chimes and the birds rise up over the fields and skies; inside the boys are sitting in classroom after classroom piling up books and homework assignments. All of the classes are obviously hard, but one is different: English class. In their first lesson, they learn that they are "food for worms." One day each of them will die, says Mr. Keating, and the only response to this grim knowledge is to "seize the day." Each boy should make his life extraordinary. Carpe Diem is the Latin motto that expresses this idea, or this determination. He also tells them if they are daring, they may call him "Oh Captain, my captain," which is what Walt Whitman called Abraham Lincoln in one of his most famous poems. After class the boys call the lesson "weird," but they are intrigued.
That evening, after showers, Knox has to go to Mr. and Mrs. Danburry's house for dinner. Todd is in his dorm, thinking about the motto Carpe Diem. At the Danburry's, Knox meets Chet Danburry's beautiful girlfriend, Chris. Afterwards, talking with his friends in the study group, he calls it a 'tragedy ' that she is going out with Chet, and not with him. Pitts reminds him that the pretty girls all go for jerks. To allay a suspicious teacher Meeks and Pitts call the illegal radio they are building a science experiment--a radar.
In English class Mr. Keating calls the introduction to their poetry anthology (by Mr. J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D.) excrement. He tells them to rip the introduction out of their books. He will persuade his class to learn to savor words and language rather than learn to rate them by some arbitrary set of rules. Keating says that we read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and are filled with passion. Each of us will contribute a verse to the poem that is life. He asks, "What will your verse be?"
Wilton's long dining hall is filled. As teachers and students eat, Keating and another faculty member discuss Keating's unusual methods and ideals. After the meal, the boys pursue Keating, calling "oh captain, my captain!" They want to know about his student days at Welton. Showing him a copy of his School Annual, they ask him what the club called the "Dead Poets Society" was. Keating laughs and tells them about the secret club meetings in the old Indian cave where, when the members read poetry to each other, "spirits soared, women swooned, and gods were created."
Neil decides on the instant: they must go to the cave and revive the club. He asks them "who's in?" Some give a reluctant and some an eager 'yes.' The most difficult to persuade is Todd, who is afraid of reading aloud. But at last all is set.
The boys go that night, walking quietly through the high ceiling halls, and running out into the misty woods. They open the meeting by reading from a book Mr. Keating has placed in Neil's desk. Later, they tell scary stories, read poems, goggle over Charlie's breathtaking centerfold, and chant and dance their way back to a Jew's harp and drum.
Mr. Keating amuses the class by giving impressions of famous film actors--Marlin Brando and John Wayne--acting Shakespeare, and then reads to them from Shakespeare's plays. At the end of class he tells the students to stand on his desk and look at the classroom from a new angle. He reminds them to constantly look at things in a different way, saying "dare to strike out and find new ground!" Then he assigns them to write an original poem which they must read out loud in front of the class. Todd Anderson, painfully shy, finds this assignment terribly frightening.
Scenes from a lovely fall weekend go by: some of the boys practice rowing on the river; Meeks and Pitts hook up an antenna to the clock tower for their illegal radio; and Todd sits in the dorm room trying to write a poem.
Then Neil bursts into the room with exciting news: there is going to be a play at Henley Hall, and there are open tryouts. At last he can get a chance to be an actor! Todd is doubtful--in fact, so doubtful and doleful that he makes Neil angry. Neil and Todd argue, and Todd tells Neil to "butt out" of his life. Neil smiles, and says, "no." Then, as other boys drop in, a crazy but friendly chase ensues around the room.
Outside, Knox rides his bike beyond the school limits, down the hill into a flock of geese, and over to the public school's football rally for a glimpse of Chris. She is there; she is beautiful, but she is definitely Chet's. Knox returns discouraged.
Mr. Keating takes the boys to the sports field and makes them read lines of poetry while they kick a soccer ball. Sport, he says, is good because as we play, other human beings push us to excell.
Then Neil comes home again, this time with more good news: he's got the main part, Puck, in A Midsummer Night's Dream. At the end of the day, a lone bagpiper stands by the lake and plays. Todd continues to worry about his poem, unable to write anything that he believes is good enough.
In class the boys are reading their poems. Todd is called on, and he says he didn't write a poem. Mr. Keating insists that Todd come up to the front of the class anyway, names his worst fear--that everything inside him is worthless and embarrassing--and coaxes him out of this fear in a dramatic fashion.
The boys play a soccer game, win, and carry Mr. Keating home through the beautiful dusk.
At the Indian cave, the boys are talking about anything and everything, when Knox, who is miserable about Chris, makes a decision: he must call her. Inside, with his friends grouped around the phone, he almost loses his courage. But he thinks of "Carpe Diem," dials the number, and is delighted by the result: she invites him to a party.
Mr. Keating's class is again doing the unusual: he asks the boys to walk around the courtyard. He wishes them to learn to find their own pace, their own individual walk, and in so doing, he urges them to believe in themselves, and to resist conformity.
Todd is alone in the evening, looking out over the school's stone walls. Neil finds him, and asks him what he is doing. "Today is my birthday," he says. And for his birthday his parents have given him the very same present they gave him last year--an ugly desk set. Todd is crushed by his parent's lack of concern, but Neil cheers him up by showing him what "the world's first unmanned flying desk set" looks like.
On Friday night all of the boys are at the cave except Knox, who has gone to the party at the Danberry's, and Charlie, who suddenly comes into the cave with two girls. The club (except Charlie) are shy and uncomfortable in front of the girls, and Knox is shy and uncomfortable at the party. Knox drinks a lot, and at an opportune moment, kisses Chris. Chet gives him a bloody nose. At the cave the boys also drink, and Charlie tells the club he is changing his name to "Nuwanda," and that he has slipped an article in Wilton's school paper in the name of the Dead Poets demanding the admission of girls to Welton. The club is angry at him for exposing them to public notice.
A school meeting is called. Mr. Nolan is extremely angry about the article, and demands that whomever is responsible confess. In the middle of the meeting, a phone rings. Charlie, who is holding the phone on his lap, stands up and says, "Mr. Nolan, it's for you. It's God. He says we should have girls at Welton." He is punished by Mr. Nolan, but not (as he had hoped to be) expelled.
Afterward Mr. Nolan warns Mr. Keating not to incite the boys, not to teach them to be free-thinkers; instead, Keating should to teach them to respect tradition, because tradition "works." Mr. Keating drops in on the boys and warns them to stay out of trouble--especially, he tells Charlie not to try to be expelled.
When Neil comes back from rehearsal, his father is waiting for him in the dorm: he has learned about the play, and angrily demands that Neil drop out immediately, even though the performance is the very next night, and Neil has the main part. Mr. Perry doesn't want Neil to do anything that doesn't relate to going to Harvard and becoming a doctor. Neil unhappily agrees, but goes later on that night to see Mr. Keating.
Mr. Keating listens to Neil's dreams and his fears, and tells Neil he must speak to his father about them. Otherwise, he is only acting the part of the dutiful son. "Isn't there an easier way?" asks Neil. "No," says Mr. Keating. "I'm trapped," says Neil. Again, Mr. Keating says, "No."
The next day Knox goes to Chris's school, brings her flowers, and reads her a poem he wrote about her in front of her friends. She is terrified Chet will kind Knox, and somewhat embarrassed by Knox's devotion.
After class Neil tells Mr. Keating that his father agreed for him to be in the play. He adds that since his father will be in Chicago on business, he cannot come to see the play.
All of the boys are dressing up to go to the play. On their way to the car, Chris comes in to the school to tell Knox to stop coming over to her school. Chet, she says, is going to kill him. On the strength of that concern, Knox pleads with her, and at last she agrees to go to the play with him. A Midsummer Night's Dream is lovely, and Neil is really good, but halfway through Neil's father comes in. After the play, he drags Neil home in disgrace.
At home, Neil's mother
is waiting. His father tells Neil that he must leave Welton and going to Braton
Military Academy, saying, "You're going to go to Harvard, and you're going
to be a doctor." "I've got to tell you what I feel," cries Neil,
but when he looks at his mother, and faces his father, he loses his words, or
his courage. "What," demands his father. "Nothing" Neil whispers.
That night, feeling truly trapped, Neil gets out his father's gun and commits
Charlie wakes up Todd with the news. Neil is dead. The boys follow Todd outside in the cold and snow. Todd stops to look at the beauty of the white world, then sickens and throws up. He cries incoherently, accusing Mr. Perry of killing Neil, and runs down the hill, sliding and falling in the snow.
In the classroom, Mr. Keating opens Neil's desk, sees the Dead Poet's book with its opening lines, and cries for Neil, and for the waste of his young life. At the funeral service, Mr. Nolan promises that there will be a thorough inquiry into the reasons behind Neil's death.
The boys in the Dead Poets society are meeting upstairs in an attic. Cameron hasn't come to the meeting, and the boys all know what his absence must mean: he is telling Mr. Nolan all about the Dead Poets. At last Cameron appears, and he tells them this: the administration will not blame them, even though they know all about the club (thanks to Cameron.) What they want the boys to do is to accuse Mr. Keating: the administration has decided that it will be his fault that Neil died. In disgust, Charlie gives Cameron a bloody nose, and Cameron snarls, "You just signed your expulsion papers, Nuwanda!"
One by one the boys are called into the office and asked to sign a paper which blames Mr. Keating. Charlie is expelled. Todd's parents are in the office when he is called. Todd is aghast, and says nothing when the paper is handed to him. He looks at the other boys' signatures, tries to protest faintly, but is cut off. "Just sign the paper," his father demands.
The boys are being led around the school learning the Latin names for stone and building. From a window above Mr. Keating looks down on them.
Nolan takes over the English class until exams. In the first class, he asks the
boys to read the excellent introduction by J. Evans Pritchard, Ph.D. Just then,
Mr. Keating walks in to get his personal belongings. While Mr. Keating is in the
back room, Mr. Nolan learns that all the introductions have been ripped out. Cameron
is asked to read aloud from Mr. Nolan's book. Through the open door, Todd looks
at Mr. Keating in misery. As Mr. Keating leaves, Todd jumps up and says, "They
made us sign that paper! You've got to believe me!" "I do believe you,
Todd," says Mr. Keating quietly. "Sit down," shouts Mr. Nolan.
"One more outburst from you, and you're out of this school!" At last
Todd finds his courage. He stands on top of his desk, faces Mr. Keating, and says,
"Oh Captain, my Captain!" Some of the other boys do so too. Standing
in the doorway, looking across the room, Mr. Keating is satisfied with his teaching.
"Thank you boys," he says.
although he faces great difficulties ahead, Todd's face is confident and peaceful.