Reviewed Jun 18, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Director Francis Ford Coppola launched his studio Zoetrope in the early 1980s but it soon found itself in deep trouble following the commercial failure of Coppola’s own One From the Heart. However the director was apparently determined to keep working and his interest turned to a new subject from an unexpected source. A librarian at the Lone Star Jr. High School in Fresno, California organized and sent a petition to Coppola urging him to consider making a film version of S.E. Hinton’s classic novel The Outsiders. Producer Fred Roos actually read the petition and passed the suggestion on to Coppola who began researching the book, finding it to be considered a classic in adolescent literature and a frequently taught book in high schools throughout America. Coppola read the book and was attracted to its theme of family belonging and group identity (of course Coppola had directed two Godfather films by this stage) and youth approaching maturity. He duly set about an arduous casting process to find the ensemble of young actors needed and by the end he had one of the finest casts of future stars ever assembled.
Set in Tulsa, Oklahoma circa 1965, The Outsiders concerns the conflict between tough youths (known as greasers) and the affluent kids from the other side of town (known as the socs, pronounced soches). The story focuses on three greasers, played by C. Thomas Howell (as the main character, Ponyboy), Ralph Macchio and Matt Dillon. Howell and Macchio are involved in the stabbing of a young soc and are encouraged by Dillon to flee to an abandoned church outside of town and wait there for him. They do, and once there change their appearance slightly and wait for Dillon to show up. He does and whilst driving back they encounter a burning school building. They stop and enter the building to save the remaining children but are injured in the process, Macchio seriously. They return to their hometown where there is a scheduled rumble with the socs. Howell speaks to one soc and a loose respect is formed, however this is not in itself enough to prevent the rumble, although is a move to maturity on the part of Howell, who has come to see more than his immediate world and is driven to write about his experiences. The plot synopsis alone does not do justice to this delicately realized film, which combines a deliberate stylization with an almost epic view of adolescent turmoil to create a lasting vision, even if the initial critical responses were mixed.
The Outsiders is one of Coppola’s last great films, before he ventured into a more mainstream path. Although stylized, the film is more effective and restrained than the previous, overblown One from the Heart and accurately captures the anarchic spirit of almost directionless youth, perhaps even questing for the direction and purpose in their lives. Yet despite their surroundings, there is an immense loyalty amongst the protagonists as it is clear that the “greaser” identity has offered them a belonging in addition to their broken family ties (Howell’s parents are dead, Macchio’s do not care). These youth stick together and gain in strength from their opposition to the socs as if part of a great system of warring tribes related to socio-economic standing. The film examines the bonds and tensions within such a gang and concentrates on two adolescents whose youth is drawing to an end, their directionless existence paradoxically culminating in an act of selfless heroism as they rescue the children. In the peril of such anarchic youth, Coppola is able to find an epic grandeur and vision, at once melancholic, despairing and promising. It is provocative in is depiction of growing pains in that it seeks to resolve the dilemma of life without a father figure, and in Howell’s plight finds its ideal demonstration of youth at closing point, where introspection yields a greater understanding.
Youth to Coppola however is far from an ideal. Yet despite is hardships, for these people it almost a moment of perfection, destined, like many critics have pointed out, to fade like the beautiful sunsets that are scattered through the film. Coppola considered the erosion of a sunset to be an apt metaphor for the end of adolescence and has built much of the film around that notion, of lives caught in the transition to maturity. He finds a dignity and honour amongst these youthful lowlifes and never condescends to their plight, indeed rooting heroism in the very impetuosity and desperation of their youth. The bonds between these people keep them going and even Dillon is distraught at Macchio’s fate, turning to crime out of frantic rage. Yet Macchio has found finally a worthwhile meaning in his actions even if to other eyes the absence of direction leads to pain and tragedy. Nevertheless, Howell and the other greasers find a measure of triumph in their togetherness and the film is a tribute to their troubled youth, a graceful, delicate vision of the beauty in a tumultuous maturation. Although most critics have determined that Coppola ultimately fell short of an epic vision, their opinion does not distract from the film’s accomplishments.