Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Outsiders’ – Greasers are people, too (1983)
“The Outsiders” is a movie that talks tough but teaches tender.
The basic conflict pits the “greasers” of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the sixties against the “socs” (socially privileged).
The tender part is not so much the tale of a greaser with a heart of gold — although there’s definitely some of that — as it is a testament that greasers are people, too.
Based on a young adult novel by S E Hinton, who also provided the raw material for the Disney-backed “Tex,” “The Outsiders” is technically polished, where “Tex” was relatively crude and thematically raw.
If “The Outsiders” looks polished, there’s good reason. While “Tex” was the work of a first-time director, “The Outsiders” was made by the practiced hand of Francis Coppola, responding to a petition sent to him by 104 seventh and eighth graders in Fresno, California.
By filming a story about the basic humanity of the street corner delinquent — primarily in steamy, blue-black tones — Coppola seems to have created an unlikely hybrid of “The Godfather” and “One From the Heart.”
Tulsa in the Sixties might not seem like the site for gang warfare, but Tulsa has its underside, too, and this unexpected locale lends the film a universality that a more conventional setting — say, the Bronx — would not.
This is a part of Tulsa where a greaser pulls out a switchblade with the nonchalance of someone lighting a cigarette. The greasers, punks of the previous generation, come alive at night, more comfortable prowling the streets than listening to their parents fighting at home.
They are like stray dogs, with a pack loyalty based more on survival than compassion. But they are still children.
When the socs are stalking two of the greasers, they find them on a jungle gym. And at the very end, when the cops gun one of them down, another greaser screams, “He’s just a kid!”
Young actors with the presence of adults
Kids though these may be, and most of the cast members are under 20, they act with the presence of adults. Although shackled with dialogue in which every other word seems to be “man,” and lines such as, “This place is out of it,” they are professionals who have their characterizations down pat.
Coppola has a ready teenage drawing card in the idolized Matt Dillon, who also starred in “Tex.”
Here he’s Dallas, the baddest greaser in town, a hardened hood-in-the-making. He gained the worldly wisdom his sidekicks admire by serving time in the juvenile home.
Dillon is an actor whose talent is in his swagger, and he knows it, which is what makes it work. Taking staccato puffs on a dangling cigarette and tapping his foot, his engine is always racing. His nervous energy telegraphs the message: “Up to no good.”
MORE: How Outsiders & Rumble Fish author S E Hinton got her start (1975)
Dillon’s character is a turnaround from the naive younger brother in “Tex.” That movie, emphasizing the value of family, was a considerably softer tale than this, which Ms. Hin- ton wrote when she was no older than the characters in her books.
Here, the dissolution of the family forever lurks in the background. Coppola stages a knifing over a fountain, dyeing its clear water with blood. He films a rumble in a rainstorm.
This is a world, he seems to be telling us, where blood is not thicker than water. Dallas, in fact, has no home life at all. He lives in a furnished room above a bar.
C. Thomas Howell, however, the 16-year-old actor who plays the narrator and protagonist, Ponyboy, seems to have had a happy home life until his parents died in a car wreck.
Ponyboy is the sensitive greaser who quotes Robert Frost, and who has, if anyone in this movie does, a heart of gold. This baby-faced boy is a greaser due to geography, not conviction.
MORE: Tommy Howell is already a ‘veteran’ actor at age 17 (1985)
He lives on the side of town where kids grow up with knives, not sets of “The World Book.” And although he admits early on, “I could never cut no one,” he soon finds himself implicated in a murder.
His even-more-innocent-looking cohort, but for the scar on his cheek, is Ralph Macchio’s Johnny — a kid who says he likes it better when his dad’s hitting him, because at least that shows the old man knows he’s around.
“The Outsiders” is the story of Ponyboy’s conversion of Johnny from outcast to member of the human race. It’s a film that has something to say to young people, and since it says it in their language and with a rawness that doesn’t pull any punches, it just may get away with it.
The Outsiders movie poster
“They grew up on the outside of society. They weren’t looking for a fight. They were looking to belong.”
Francis Ford Coppola presents “The Outsiders” – S E Hinton’s classic novel about youth
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‘The Outsiders’ movie trailer (video)
Cast of “The Outsiders” movie
Tom Cruise (Steve Randle)
Rob Lowe (Sodapop Curtis)
C. Thomas Howell (Ponyboy Curtis)
Ralph Macchio (Johnny Cade)
Matt Dillon (Dallas “Dally” Winston)
Emilio Estevez (Two-Bit Matthews)
Patrick Swayze (Darrel “Darry” Curtis)
Diane Lane (Sherri “Cherry” Valance)
Leif Garrett (Robert “Bob” Sheldon)
Tom Waits (Buck Merrill)