‘Dead Poets Society’ Has Some Distinctly Australian Relevance

‘Dead Poets Society’ Has Some Distinctly Australian Relevance

By Oghale May3,2024

The Australia Letter is a weekly newsletter from our Australia bureau. This week’s issue is written by Damien Cave, the Australia bureau chief since 2017.

With my 13-year-old daughter home for a break from her one-year adventure at a boarding school in the Australian bush, we put on an old movie the other night that she had asked to see: “Dead Poets Society.”

As many of you probably know, it’s a coming-of-age story set at an American private school, starring an inspiring teacher played by Robin Williams. I loved it when it came out in 1989 (I was a young teen then myself), but when the director’s name — Peter Weir — appeared onscreen in my Sydney living room, I did a double take.

I’d never realized that the movie, a beloved classic for many Americans, was directed by an Australian. Somehow, the same bloke responsible for Australian classics like “Gallipoli” and “Picnic at Hanging Rock” was also the director of very American favorites like “Dead Poets Society” and “The Truman Show.”

Like me, or so I would like to believe, Mr. Weir seemed to be conversant in the cultures of these two English-speaking settler nations, able, perhaps, to see more clearly the deep grooves and dark shadows of each because he’d had the chance to look from a distant perspective.

I watched the movie with fresh eyes. I was already looking for what secrets and lessons it might hold for my daughter. I wondered if I would feel more sympathetic to the adults rather than the moderately rebellious teens this time (nope), but I also decided to look for what might make the movie more Australian than I had noticed in earlier viewings.

What, if anything, would Australian audiences have found relevant and relatable?

At first, the movie struck me as extremely American. I recognized the emphasis on Henry David Thoreau, an American writer who lived not far from where I had grown up in Massachusetts. His quotes from “Walden” about the need to live deliberately and “suck out all the marrow of life” were already in our family mix: I’d sent a bit of Thoreau to my daughter in letters, an analog exchange that I recently wrote about in an essay for The Times.

Doing a bit of research, I could see that the film’s screenwriter, Tom Schulman, who won an Academy Award for his efforts, based the story on his own experiences at the prep school he attended in Nashville. And there was a bit of Hollywood narcissism to be found as well — the lead character, Neil Perry, wanted to be an actor rather than, say, a poet or pianist. There’s nothing movie people love more than to make their own business seem rebellious and heroic.

But in Robin Williams’s character, and how he was treated, I felt I could also see a touch of the Australian. Mr. Williams’s performance was remarkably restrained, something that had to come in part from Mr. Weir’s direction. It made the severity of the character’s professional demise at the hands of more traditional forces all the more painful to watch. It worked in part, I think, because John Keating (yes, that’s the name of Williams’s character, no relation to the Australian prime minister) walked to the edge of something very Australian: tall poppy syndrome.

Keating was an alumnus of the fictional Welton Academy where he taught. As a student, he was the captain of the soccer team, Cambridge-bound, a founder of the Dead Poets Society — and voted the “man most likely to do anything,” according to the yearbook found by his students, whom he encouraged to call him “Captain.”

He had every reason to toot his own horn, and the fact that the administrators at the school all knew him by his achievements and reputation hinted at resentment and the tall poppy phenomenon — which can mean a lot of things, but is generally defined as “a societal attitude that occurs when people are resented, disliked or criticized due to their successes.”

In my experience, many Australians hate that this is a part of their culture, but they also find it nearly impossible to resist. As Ben Shewry, the internationally renowned chef at Attica in Melbourne, told me when I had just arrived in Oz, Australians are still terrible at celebrating each other’s successes.

If Keating had been too big a personality, exuding arrogance or simply resembling Robin Williams the standup comedian, many Australians wouldn’t have connected with the character. But instead, in my reading, he was a tall poppy who found humility while holding onto conviction.

As an English teacher, rather than some high-falutin’ university boss, he was quietly calling for carpe diem. He was a guru, not a maverick (“Top Gun” reference!), calmly encouraging nonconformity as he raised his head high and climbed on top of his desk. Yes, he was cut down and blamed for something awful that he was not ultimately responsible for. But maybe that’s the point the movie, and Mr. Weir, wanted to make?

The filmmakers were aiming to call out the guardians of rigidity who see nonconformity as arrogance, regardless of whether it is or not. Americans may gravitate to the antihero in such situations. But while Australians like to see themselves as cultural rebels or Larrikins, in fact, most of the country tends to go along with the wardens and whatever rules there are.

I’ve never interviewed Mr. Weir (mate, if you see this, drop me a note), but I know he knows this dynamic from firsthand experience. He attended a conservative all-boys school in Sydney (Scots), where he has said he would have been thrilled to join a version of the Dead Poets Society that gave the film its name.

If there was a message that he wanted to convey, perhaps it was a criticism of Australia’s tendency to denigrate the iconoclast, to tear down the bolder, more creative collaborator — to see sticking together and staying roughly the same as everyone else, even if that means hovering in mediocrity, as the best way to live in Australia, and in general.

Some of these struggles came up for me just the other day, when I found myself teaching a journalism class at the University of New South Wales. After running through a lesson on feature writing, I was encouraging students to take on longer, complex, thought-provoking stories, no matter what job in journalism they might have. I told them to go out and report on what they were passionate about without asking for permission.

I did not channel Keating. I did not stand on any desks or ask anyone to call me Captain.

But one of the students asked if I had any advice about how to get beyond a narrow role while avoiding disdain — and being labeled a tall poppy.

I admit that I stumbled with my answer. As an American who has written a book in part about the perils of my home country’s culture of extreme individuality, maybe I am more accepting of Australia’s pressure to remain unpretentious together.

Where I ended up was with a suggestion to stay humble as you pursue ideas that do not necessarily fit your job description; to try and show, with the work and not self-promotion, what your passion could add to the publication and for its audience.

Like Keating, like Weir, I think I was trying to find a middle ground between the virtues of America and Australia, to build a relationship between the two for the next generation. Maybe that’s something that both countries would benefit from if they both made it a priority.

Now here are our stories of the week.



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