Four Pillars to Rule Them All
Ahh, Welton. The kind of place that makes your school—weird gray lunchmeat, locker hierarchies, deafening bells, and grinning nightmare football mascots included—look like a paradise of personal freedom.
Just check out the four pillars of Welton—"Tradition," "Discipline," "Honor" and "Excellence"—as they march toward the screen on flags in one of the early shots of the film. Behind them, the students are barely visible.
That, right there, is some heavy symbolism. The pillars of Welton engulf the students; their individual needs and dreams are not important.
The flags are part of a larger ritual welcoming students to Welton. It's a solemn one, filled with bagpipes and candles and church pews. These types of rituals exist to remind students of the legacy of their institution; years and years have gone by, students have come and gone, but the ritual stays the same.
For. ev. er.
The Flag Doesn't Always Match the Flagbearer
But that doesn't mean that they don't each grapple with the pillars that the flags represent.
Consider the pillar of "Tradition," which we first see in flag form being carried by Cameron. For the most part, the boys adhere to this pillar. They abide by the rituals and rules that have governed Welton since its inception, like the lighting of the candles of knowledge. There may be an instance or two where they aren't afraid to disrupt some of these traditions—like when Charlie hijacks one of Headmaster Nolan's speeches in order to play a prank.
But in the end, Cameron, holder of the Tradition flag, upholds Welton's tradition of conformity by finking on the DPS.
The flag of "Excellence" is carried in by Neil, one of Welton's most promising students. The headmaster praises him, and his father believes that he's headed straight for the top.
What happens to Neil's excellence?
Well, it withers and dies under the weight of the other pillars. For him, and the other DPS members, excellence comes to mean following one's dreams. When Welton's idea of excellence is different from the DPS members', the resulting tension is…destructive. Neil ultimately succumbs to the weight of the expectations that come with being "excellent."
"Discipline" is carried by Knox. That's right, Knox, the romantic who pursues Chris and recites love poetry at the secret DPS meeting, despite very certain rules against such behavior. The other boys play with Welton's code of discipline, too; after all, the DPS is highly secret for a reason: it involves sneaking out of the dorms, an activity not allowed.
As the boys study poetry and explore their devotion to "carpe diem" they are seriously challenging their discipline to live the ideals that Mr. Keating gives them. Because they don't waver and truly seize the day, Knox may be, in this sense, the most disciplined of them all. Too bad Headmaster Nolan doesn't see it that way.
And who carries "Honor"? Hopkins, a character who doesn't get much speaking time at all. But honor is a concept that all the DPS members, and the faculty of Welton, concern themselves with throughout the film. Remaining truthful to oneself is a key part of living authentically, and it's definitely part of the lesson Mr. Keating hopes to teach the boys.
And the honor of each boy is questioned in the end, when they are asked to sign a statement condemning Mr. Keating. It's either sign or face dire consequences…so most of 'em sign.
In the end, though, the flags will just be trotted out at the beginning of the next term. The pillars won't change, and neither will Welton. The boys might change, but they'll still be stuck behind the flags, invisible.
Ugh. No wonder it's such a solemn ceremony.