Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” (1983)

I, like millions of other American kids, read S.E. Hinton’s teen angst novel The Outsiders in a high school English class and identified with it.  My favorite part of reading a novel in English class, however, was getting to watch the movie adaptation afterwards, which would always eat up a couple days of class.  Naturally, we watched Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 adaptation, which I remember quite liking at the time.  If memory serves me right, that might have even been the first time I had seen a Coppola film.

Thirty years after its release, Coppola’s THE OUTSIDERS has aged somewhat well, but certainly feels dated in that it’s rooted to a particular place and time.  The film was a modest success for Coppola, albeit a much needed one after the nuclear bomb that was ONE FROM THE HEART (1982).  It would be a crowning gem in any director’s body of work, but considering Coppola’s exceptionally strong oeuvre, it becomes a minor work at best.

The film adaptation of THE OUTSIDERS got its start when Coppola received a letter from a Fresno middle school.  The letter, penned by a teacher and signed by all her students, implored Coppola to turn the classic novel about lost innocence into a feature film.  Moved by this unique display, Coppola secured the rights to the novel and began production.

We’re all familiar with the story: the constant battling between the Soc’s– the well-heeled, preppy rich kids– and the Greasers– the poor kids from the the wrong side of the tracks– and how it manifests in a tragedy that claims casualties on both sides.  At the center of all this is Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell), a sensitive young man who aspires to something better than his hardscrabble existence.  In this midwestern town in the 1950’s, the teenage social constructs are boiled down to two distinct classes:  the haves and the have-nots.  It may be an unrealistically simplistic concept (after all, Hinton was only sixteen years old when she wrote the novel), but the story’s power is derived from the cultural cache these archetypes bring.  The stakes couldn’t be any more meaningless in the grand scheme of things, but in their world, every altercation means life or death.

The strongest thing about the film, by far, is the casting.  Coppola and producer Fred Roos assembled a pitch-perfect ensemble of the era’s brightest up-and-comers.  It’s fascinating to see so many well-established and respected stars as fresh-faced kids, full of optimism and energy. The aforementioned Howell is compelling to watch as Ponyboy, and his lack of star power is actually beneficial for serving as the audience’s point of entry into this strange, yet familiar world.  Matt Dillon is pitch perfect as Dallas, a hotheaded delinquent who serves as a role model to the more impressionable minds of the group.  Ralph Macchio, of KARATE KID fame, plays Johnny with the appropriate scruffiness and skittishness.  The late Patrick Swayze, by far the oldest of the cast, is thoroughly convincing as Darrel,  Ponyboy’s brother, guardian, and father-figure all rolled up into one.

Rounding out the cast are a mix of faces who were at the time just breaking out into the mainstream.  For many, this was their debut feature film.  This was certainly the case for Rob Lowe, who played the middle brother of the Curtis clan, Sodapop.  Lowe is energetic and sensitive like his younger brother, but unfortunately saw the majority of his screen time cut in the theatrical release.  Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez, plays Two-Bit, the Mickey Mouse T-shirt-wearing jester of the group.  Tom Cruise, baring a truly hideous set of crooked teeth, brings a manic, wild energy to his depiction of Steve.  Then there’s the inimitable Diane Lane as Cherry, an insightful Soc who bridges the gap and finds common ground with the Greasers.  In a film filled with heavy doses of male braggadocio, she’s a welcome bit of femininity and elegant grace.

Coppola eschews any extravagant aesthetic styling in favor of a toned-down, realistic approach.  As lensed by Director of Photography Stephen H. Burum, Coppola paints the rusted-out industrial environs of midcentury Tulsa, OK with a saturated, yet natural color palette and a high-key, noir-ish lighting scheme.  Interpreting the subject matter as somewhat of a rockabilly version of Victor Fleming’s GONE WITH THE WIND (1939), Coppola adopts the panoramic 2:35:1 aspect ratio and covers a fair amount of action with sweeping dolly movements.  This approach also extends to more stylish flourishes like projected backgrounds (the infamous “stay gold” sunset sequence draws many visual comparisons to the romantic cinematography of GONE WITH THE WIND).

As far as Coppola’s visual execution goes, THE OUTSIDERS is pretty straightforward.  There’s no discernible attempt at experimentation, save for Coppola’s affection for double-exposed, multi-layered images.  He peppers a few shots throughout the film that feature the subject in extreme close-up and a background element in wide shot, yet both are in equal focus.  This is indicative of Coppola’s attempts to push the boundaries of cinematic language, and he accomplished these tricky shots by using a split-field diopter on the camera lens, which works not unlike a pair of bifocals.  Other recurring visual elements, like the smoky park in which Dallas meets his violent end, and an on-camera appearance by musician Tom Waits, hark back to previous Coppola films by virtue of their inclusion.

Coppola’s use of technology as a tool to further his storytelling was also incorporated into an extensive rehearsal process before the shoot.  Video was a nascent medium in the early 1980’s, and Coppola was bullish about its benefits.  He incorporated video’s primary usefulness at the time– cheap image recording– to document the rehearsals, effectively constructing a video version of the entire film.  Yes, he was so excited about the ease of video shooting that he managed to shoot the entire film on video before he even began making the film itself.

Also consistent with Coppola’s previous films, THE OUTSIDERS is a family affair.  The aforementioned Estevez is Martin Sheen’s son, who we all remember played Captain Willard in APOCALYPSE NOW (1979).    Coppola’s own (late) son, Gian-Carlo Coppola, served as a producer on the film alongside Roos, Kim Aubry, and Gray Frederickson.  Coppola also enlisted his father, Carmine Coppola, once again for score duties.  Coppola the elder crafts a rocking/surfer vibe for his score, which complements the rebelliousness of the central characters.  Coppola the younger also included a mix of well-known rock tunes, like Van Morrison’s “Gloria”, as well as commissioned the  original ballad from Stevie Wonder that opens the film.

THE OUTSIDERS was severely cut upon its release in order to have a more palatable running time.  When Coppola again began receiving letters asking for a version of the movie that more resembled the book, he took it to heart.  In 2005, he unboxed the original negatives and put back in an additional twenty-five minutes.  He also replaced a great deal of Carmine Coppola’s original score with a variety of prerecorded rock tracks that give the film a distinct, entirely new flavor.  This alternate cut, known as The Complete Novel, now appears to have supplanted the original cut as Coppola’s preferred vision of the film.  The new cut was greeted with a great deal of praise and appreciation, not the least of which was by actor Rob Lowe, who saw the vast majority of his cut footage reintegrated into the film and his character’s importance boosted.

THE OUTSIDERS has aged only slightly since its release, but what struck me most upon revisiting the film is that it seems like it belongs somewhere within Coppola’s pre-GODFATHER early work, as opposed to his mid-career efforts.  It’s much more simplistic as a film, and there’s no grandiose statements about the nature of the American experience as there in his other adaptations of novels like THE GODFATHER (1972) or APOCALYPSE NOW.  In short, it’s a small story about male camaraderie and the deep bond formed in moments of crisis.  It’s unpretentiousness is one of its strongest points– offering an earnest, optimistic point of view that captures the boundless energy of teenage life.

In watching THE OUTSIDERS, I was briefly transported back to my first encounters with the material in high school, and I found myself waxing nostalgic about the good old days… a time where everything was simpler and affairs of the heart consumed every waking thought and desire.  I suspect this was Coppola’s intention all along, to return us to a more innocent place and time, in hopes that we’ll reconnect with the rambunctious child that still lives deep inside ourselves.  If that was indeed his intention, then THE OUTSIDERS is truly a success.

THE OUTSIDERS is available in its alternate cut, The Complete Novel, on standard definition DVD from Warner Brothers.

Credits:

Produced by: Kim Aubry, Gian-Carlo Coppola, Gray Frederickson, Fred Roos

Written by: Kathleen Rowell and Francis Ford Coppola

Director of Photography: Stephen H. Burum

Editor: Anne Goursand

Production Designer: Dean Tavoularis

Music: Carmine Coppola