Monday, February 16, 2015
(March 1983, U.S.)
To reflect back on Francis Ford Coppola's film version of S.E. Hinton's classic novel about youth THE OUTSIDERS is to consider two interesting pieces of trivia. The first is that clearly popular fiction in the world of teens and pre-teens has changed quite drastically over the decades. When I was a middle school student in the early 1980s, it seemed that everybody over the age of twelve was reading books like THE OUTSIDERS, THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW, TEX and RUMBLE FISH (also directed by Coppola) because, despite the fact that they often took place during an era of the past, they were considered definitive of the struggles of youth that focussed on belonging, acceptance and conflict with others (by the year 1985, one could say that director John Hughes had taken over that social responsibility with a film like THE BREAKFAST CLUB). However, it would now seem that the novels of the TWILIGHT and THE HUNGER GAMES franchises have taken over the reading minds of the young (younger!). Who can blame them, I suppose. Were I that age today, I'd probably find it a lot more fun to read about teenage vampires and fights to the death in public arenas rather than good ol' fashioned, ordinary youth and class struggles. The second consideration is to recall that in between APOCALYPSE NOW (1979) and THE GODFATHER-PART III, it would seem that poor 'ol Francis could hardly get himself arrested, which is actually unfortunate because during the 1980s he made some rather interesting period pieces, including THE OUTSIDERS, THE COTTON CLUB, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED and GARDENS OF STONE. I didn't say they were all great movies, but interesting, nonetheless. In fact, one may note that in between THE CONVERSATION (1974) and THE RAINMAKER (1997), none of Coppola's films took place in the present day.
So now, consider THE OUTSIDERS first by looking real good and hard at the movie poster attached. Look at those up and coming young men whom would soon go on to be major motion picture stars (well, most of them, anyway). Grouped together, they're just a bunch of punk kids with faces you may or may not recognize. Still, back in the day, these young boys were the ones to put together in a project like this (were THE OUTSIDERS remade today with such a case, I suppose the first person they'd have to call is Justin Bieber!). At the time this film was cast, the only minor recognition might have been Ralph Macchio because he'd been on ABC-TV's EIGHT IS ENOUGH years prior and Matt Dillon from films like THE BODYGUARD and LITTLE DARLINGS (both 1980). Beyond them, the only star's name the film might have banked on even a little was a cameo appearance by Leif Garrett (look up who he was!). So basically, the film was taking on a very fresh start in the hands of an already worthy and gifted film maker. As previously mentioned, the story is of another era, 1965 Tulsa, Oklahoma to be exact, and the small town in the story consists of basically two kinds of youth; "the Greasers" (our heroes and outsiders of the film) and the more financially-better off, socially-acceptable kids known as "the Socs'. It's a class struggle that's carved in stone because no matter who gains the upper hand over the other, be it an act of violent self-defense or victory in the climactic rumble, each group will always have to live with the stigmata of who they are and what place they occupy in society. That will never change. Coppola knows that and doesn't deliberately try and reverse who any of these kids are by the end of the film. Like Hinton, he simply tries to evolve them along the way with a newly-realized sense of self-worth and self-respect. In that respect, it's the characters of Ponyboy Curtis (played by C. Thomas Howell), Johnny Case (played by Ralph Maccio) and Dallas Winston (played by S.E. Hinton film regular Matt Dillon). The other boys, played by the more recognizable faces of the future, are almost merely just sidekicks and cronies for our three main heroes. Ponyboy and Johnny know who they are in society and seem to accept it, but they still long for more experiences and social interactions that will perhaps take them away from their small town and maybe even hook them up with the more desirable "Socs'". While I'd hardly call Ponyboy's new relationship with Soc Cherry Valance (played by Diane Lane) a romance, of sorts, it's a new friendship that expands the level of mutual respect between both classes within themselves. Still, it's this new friendship that leads to trouble and results in the death of Cherry's drunk boyfriend (Lief Garret) when Johnny is forced to kill him to save Ponyboy's life during a fight. Simple self-defense perhaps, but situations like that are not particularly "cut and dry" in a town like this where "Greasers" are at the low end of the totem pole. So now, with the help of town bad boy Dallas, Ponyboy and Johnny are on the run and must hide out in the outskirts of town. It's now that their experiences begin, even with the simplest pleasures of watching a sunset together or reading to each other from the book of GONE WITH THE WIND. Remember also, that I've called these boys the heroes of the film and that's never more true when they choose to risk their lives to save a group of children from a burning church. But like many films, heroes die, too. For his burning sacrifice, Johnny pays the ultimate price in the end, a death which drives the already violent Dallas to further levels during the climactic rumble and then to his own death when he's gunned down by the local police. Still, with tragedy comes the clichés of hope in that Ponyboy will eventually turn out to be someone special, and it begins with the simple act of writing down his experiences in an English composition notebook.
Like I said, during the 1980s, poor Coppola could barely get himself noticed anymore. It's only now, decades later, that we can look upon the entire body of work the man has given us and reflect on it with justifiable credit. THE OUTSIDERS is cerainly no GODFATHER or APOCALYPSE NOW. It is, however, a very noble and noteworthy effort to bring to the screen a period of writing by an author who had, during her time, captured the attention and the imagination of the American youth before other authors as J.K. Rowling (HARRY POTTER), Stephenie Meyer (TWILIGHT) and by Suzanne Collins (THE HUNGER GAMES) took over that task with slightly more supernatural effects. By the way, I'll mention GONE WITH THE WIND again now because it's clearly a topic and a theme that Coppola keeps on his mind during the film. Take a look at these two sunset images, the first from GONE WITH THE WIND and the second from THE OUTSIDERS and tell me that the visual image is not something that's meant to inspire and impact us...
Coincidence?? I think not!
Favorite line or dialogue:
Ponyboy (narrating): "When I stepped out, into the bright sunlight from the darkened movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home."