The Outsiders, 1983.
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola.
Starring C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise and Diane Lane.
SYNOPSIS: Two rival teen gangs, the working class Greasers and the well-off Socs get caught up in frequent confrontation in 1960s Oklahoma. But when one of the Socs is accidentally killed, the youngest Greasers, Ponyboy and Johnny, flee town.
The 1980s weren’t as kind to Francis Ford Coppola as the 70s. After making a handful of films that are considered some of the best of all time – The Godfather parts I & II, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation – the following decade was much more low key.
In 1983, Coppola adapted S.E. Hinton’s novel about 1960s teen gangs in small town America, The Outsiders. Edited down to approximately 90 minutes for theatrical release, the film wasn’t very well received on it’s initial run. Here, on a new DVD and Blu-ray, Coppola presents his originally intended cut of the film. Still running at less than 2 hours, it’s not as painfully long as his redux version of Apocalypse Now, but it’s not nearly as good as either version of that film. It’s still quite enjoyable, but it feels almost as if it was made by an entirely different director.
The Outsiders is a small film, taking part in one southern American town – Tulsa, Oklahoma. Gone is the epic feel and glorious cinematography of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now and in it’s place is an intimate portrait of a down-and-out group of teens known as ‘the Greasers’, focusing mainly on Ponyboy Curtis (played by C. Thomas Howell), a 14-year-old orphan looked after by his two older brothers (a young Rob Lowe and Patrick Swayze). Ponyboy is a charismatic lead and holds the film together well. He becomes the emotional crux of everything experienced by the gang. It’s really a film about the social standing of a group of kids without much hope, and how they come to deal with their situation by caring for one another.
It’s interesting that C. Thomas Howell, so engaging here, never became a star. Particularly when you compare him to the rest of the stunning cast. It really is one of the best ‘before they were famous’ casts I’ve seen. We have Rob Lowe, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Emilio Estevez, Tom Cruise, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio (the Karate Kid, if you’re not familiar with that name), and a cameo from Tom Waits. Bear in mind this was 1983 – so before Top Gun, Dirty Dancing or The Karate Kid. Other than Waits (who was known for his music rather than acting), none of these actors had done anything of note before this film. In contrast to the now household names, C. Thomas Howell was recently seen in Asylum ‘mockbusters’ The Da Vinci Treasure and War of The Worlds 2: The Next Wave.
The Outsiders is a flawed film, but one which is still watchable and fun. The plot’s not really focused and seems to spiral into several directions at various points. That’s one of the difficulties of adapting a novel, and here it does feel like an adapted novel rather than a fully formed three-act film. There’s nothing really stunning about The Outsiders either. There are a few nicely composed shots, the Elvis-filled soundtrack is fitting and enjoyable but at times too loud for the dialogue, and while the characters are interesting, some of them don’t feel fully developed. Coppola doesn’t really put his own stamp on it either, never doing much to differentiate it from other coming-of-age films.
So why did I like it then? In a way its flaws are fairly charming and it’s as if they are what gives it character and differentiates it from other films. There’s a lot of heart there too, and a bunch of characters you come to like. I was happy to watch their story even when things started to drift or get muddled. And I guess this is what makes a cult film. It’s far from perfect, but is full of charm and quirks, and does just about enough things right to make you like it. And when you have a young cast as impressive as this, it’s hard to see why The Outsiders isn’t given a cult status more often.
Arnold Stone blogs at spaceshipbroken.com and can also be found on Twitter.