The Outsiders (1983)
Written by Kathleen Rowell
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
The 1980s did not start well for Francis Ford Coppola. Despite some strong entries into his filmography, it didn’t end up too great at the end, either. This decade was a period of change & tragedy for the director, a clear sign that whatever magic had manifested itself in the 1970s would be tempered. One From the Heart was his first entry into the decade, and it was a box office disaster, only making $600,000+ against a $26 million budget. 1983 found Coppola selling his 23-acre Zoetrope Studios to begin paying off the debts One From the Heart left him with. He would spend the entire decade working to pay that debt off, contributing to some of the more unexpected jobs he took. Coppola was still a great filmmaker; they weren’t all hits this time. The Outsiders, though, isn’t a miss and is one of the highlights of the 1980s.
The Outsiders, based on the novel by S.E. Hinton, follows Ponyboy (C. Thomas Howell), a young boy growing up on the “wrong side of the tracks” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, circa 1965. His best friend is Johnny (Ralph Macchio), and the two look up to the older boys that run in their social circle, The Greasers. The Greasers are poor, working-class kids who grudge against the privileged Socs. One night, a group of Socs confronts Ponyboy and Johnny kills one of them. Dallas (Matt Dillon) gives them directions to an abandoned church a few towns over to hide in while things cool off. Ponyboy & Johnny become closer during this time and have to play the role of heroes when tragedy strikes. The aftermath will shake the foundations of these young men’s lives forever and inspire Ponyboy to write down the story of his life.
Coppola came to this film due to a letter a California school librarian wrote him. Her 7th & 8th-grade students wanted him to adapt The Outsiders for film, so he got a copy and read it. Coppola was deeply impressed with the book, especially the relationships between the characters. Not surprisingly, it reminded him of his own youth as he was approximately the same age as these young men. I think it’s very evident that Coppola was looking to the films of Nicolas Ray, particularly Rebel Without a Cause. Following in the style of One From the Heart, Coppola doesn’t shy away from presenting scenes in a clearly heightened reality, the most stunning of which is the “Nothing Gold Can Stay” moment. Ponyboy and Johnny watch a sunset, and the former boy recites the Frost poem, all while bathed in a heavenly golden light.
The style of the film serves to mythologize its world and characters. They exist only in memory or dream, characters that feel familiar, but you never quite meet them in real life. Their names add to that sense of mystique. Dallas. Ponyboy. Soda Pop. Cherry. Even Johnny is an archetypal name in this context. These are the teenagers that real teenagers imagined they were or wished they could meet, especially from Coppola’s youth. Like Rebel Without a Cause, the real romance is between the two male leads. The female lead ultimately doesn’t have much to do in the story, especially compared to how complex the relationship is between Ponyboy and Johnny.
Whether Coppola & Hinton realized it or not, this story is about a gay relationship. The two central boys are in love with each other. They may not kiss or have sex, but they embrace each other, clearly finding solace in each other’s arms. Johnny kills for Ponyboy, the most intense that a relationship can possibly be between two people. They read to each other until they fall asleep, holding onto each other. They watch sunsets and recite poetry about the nature of beauty & goodness in the world. It’s never played for laughs, or ironically, the love between the boys is pure. They make each other better people the way all good relationships should be. This makes the tragedy of the finale that much more painful and will likely tear your heart out if you aren’t expecting it.
I absolutely loved every aspect of this film. I think it is one of Coppola’s greats and the best film he made in the 1980s. All of the aesthetic references to older films felt perfectly placed and enhanced the picture’s energy. Watching this will take you back to those days of your youth, overflowing with energy and rushing from place to place, living in this tension between all the beautiful potential you are discovering versus the harsh realities of a broken-down world. Coppola completely understands what the youth of his generation found cool and was able to translate for the 1980s, which the movie definitely seemed to resonate with. I think what works so well is that the film is vibrating with “feminine” energy, in that our characters are fueled by earnest passion, for each other, for what it means to be a Greaser, always raging against a world that seems pitted against them. They never really show fear, but we know they feel it. If all movies based on Young Adult novels were this good, I would be a much bigger fan of the genre.