Classic Movie ReviewsMovie ReviewsClassic Review: The Outsiders (1983)

leandromatos1981May 16, 201985/100
C. Thomas Howell, Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio
Kathleen Rowell
Francis Ford Coppola
PG (Canada, United States)
Running Time
91 minutes
Overall Score
Rating Summary
The Outsiders is a very moving adaptation of S.E. Hinton novel, with a stellar cast (who were relative unknowns at the time).

In the early 60’s, Ponyboy Curtis (Howell), the youngest of three orphans, get into the The Greasers, a gang of boys from the “wrong side” of the tracks. Ponyboy’s relationship with his older brother Darrel (Patrick Swayze) is falling apart after Darrel became responsible for him and for Sodapop (Rob Lowe), the middle brother who dropped out of school to work full time at the gas station. Pobyboy’s best friend is Johnny Cade (Macchio), who ends up killing a boy from the Socs, a rival gang. The two run away with the help of Dallas (Dillon), until both come back in town and The Greasers need to face the Socs.

The Outsiders was a strange element in director Francis Ford Coppola’s career. After a very ambitious decade in the 70’s with Godfather, Apocalypse Now and The Conversation, and an even more ambitious start of the 80’s with One From the Heart (which was a colossal failure), Coppola seemed to take a step back and reassess. He received a letter from both a librarian and a class of 13-year old students, signed by all of them, asking him to consider adapting S.E. Hinton’s book, The Outsiders, into the big screen. Coppola fell in love with the book and said yes to such an innocent request. He would end up making an understated masterpiece.

The Outsiders definitely took inspiration from with Rebel Without a Cause and The Wild One. These kids are heirs to James Dean and Marlon Brando, and their conflicts are simple and seem so small, but the beauty of the film is exactly in not turning them into major things. It’s just these boys hanging around and looking for trouble, while days goes by pretty much all the same. The big turning point of the film is when Johnny kills the rival kid. In a way, it is the moment that Johnny and Ponyboy let childhood behind forever and step into (young) adulthood. But their entrance into adulthood is not without its problems. The truth is they are still not ready to be adults, and they are constantly struggling between their innocence and the weight of what they have done, turning Johnny’s sacrifice in a very very sad moment in the film.

This is one of the most interesting aspects of the film: how it balances very well the joys and the melancholy of being a teenager. These kids love each other to death, and they want nothing more than to keep having fun with each other forever, without having to really care about consequences. But life is constantly signaling them that it can’t go on forever; adulthood is around the corner, and with it, its problems and responsibilities. In a way, The Outsiders perfectly encapsulates that exact moment in our lives when we are beginning to understand the broader and more complicated world around us while still having one foot firmly placed in childhood innocence.

The film was released in 1983 with a running time of 90 minutes. In 2005, Coppola and Warner Bros. released a new version of the film, entitled The Complete Novel. With 22 extra minutes, this version shed a new light on the story. The best moments of the new cut are the scenes between the three brothers, little moments that turn their relationship into a more tri-dimensional one and show off the actor’s individual strengths. Darrel tries to be an “adult” influence to his younger brothers, and Swayze does a great job in showing us the insecurities and fears behind the strong character he needs to put up for his brothers.

The fear of separation is palpable in the household; they know social services can take them all away from each other. Howell is fantastic as Ponyboy, turning his character into a compelling and relatable lead. But the best moments from the new cut come from Lowe, whose character was severely cut in the theatrical release and now shows so much vulnerability it is heartbreaking to watch. His conversation with Ponyboy in the bed is beautiful, but his breakdown in the park is so touching and so understated.

The whole cast works just fine, even Tom Cruise in a very small role. Coppola let the actors improvise and the cast had a long period of rehearsal before shooting started. That helped turning these kids, all still very new to acting, into a strong and united group. Besides the ones already mentioned, Dillon, who was probably the biggest name of the cast at the time, turned Dallas into the perfect example of teenage revelry. Dallas is cool and dangerous, all at the same time. Diane Lane, almost the only actress in the cast, was very young at the time, but she manages to turn in a very commanding performance, standing up to Dallas in the toughest of ways but also embracing Ponyboy with a lot of warmth.

Of course, having Coppola on the helm only made the technical parts of the movie stand out. The photography is outstanding; Coppola was experimenting at the time (again, One From the Heart is a perfect example of that) and the golden tones give the film a magical atmosphere sometimes. Editing and the camera work are great, and the film start and ends with the perfect Stevie Wonder ballad.

The Outsiders is just a small movie in Francis Ford Coppola’s career. But when you watch it, you’ll see there’s nothing little about it.

*still courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.*

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