When The Outsiders was first released, a critic from the Los Angeles Times noted that "audiences who are not (S.E.) Hinton experts may be treading water during the first 20 minutes, desperately trying to keep half a dozen identities and family relationships straight." Hinton initially began writing the book when she was 15 and finished it when she was 17; the novel is in many respects what one might expect from a 15 year-old author. Naive and romanticized, The Outsiders attempts to uncover something poetic in the alien world of troubled teenage boys who seem at once dangerous and sensitive. Though Hinton addresses a valid need for positive role models for teenagers, she has created idealized males who are hypersensitive, know their innermost feelings and do not hesitate to express them. Ponyboy is the most obvious example of this stylization, particularly in the scene where he reads a passage from his favorite book, Gone With the Wind, to his pal Johnny Cade (Ralph Macchio) while they hide out in a run-down church.
Whether intentional or not, scenes like the above clearly evoke the angst-ridden emotions of Rebel Without A Cause (1955); an idea repeatedly reinforced by the presence of Sal Mineo look-alike, Ralph Macchio. Originally prompted to make The Outsiders by an elementary school librarian and her students who sent Coppola a petition to bring the novel to life, the director set out to make a nostalgic fifties film. In an attempt to heighten the film's emotional impact, Coppola uses nature as a dramatic force; sudden storms, sunsets and sunrises are conjured up swiftly and disappear just as quickly, much like the turmoil in the teenagers' lives. And whereas Nicholas Ray used Cinemascope in Rebel Without A Cause to express the alienated viewpoint of his young protagonists (remember the sequence in the police station when you can't see the heads or faces of any of the adult characters?), Coppola goes a step further in The Outsiders and eliminates all adults from the narrative, all the better to study these scarred but passionate teenagers in their own element.
The theme of teenage alienation was driven home dramatically by Coppola during the rehearsal process. After a massive "cattle call" of over 300 male teens, which was eventually whittled down to a primary cast of "Greasers" and "Socs", the two groups were then separated. "'Socs' were treated like princes," says Coppola, "and 'Greasers' the opposite. Only occasionally did they meet, in a competitive sport, so we could fan their distrust and dislike." For weeks, the latter group prepared meals together, improvised playing a family, practiced tai chi, and played touch football - activities that bonded the "Greasers" together and separated them from their snooty counterparts. Though the process worked, there were rumors that Coppola was having financial problems, which might explain the unusually long pre-production phase for the actors. Rob Lowe recalls "Apparently there were problems with financing...(Coppola) was on the phone with his wife saying, 'Don't let them in the gate! Don't - wait, hold on a second - Action!'"
The Outsiders earned Coppola mixed reviews when the film was finally released. Praised for his beautiful technique, as much as he was criticized for his romanticized portrayal of teen life, evidence of Coppola's genuine achievement lies in these uneven reviews. The novel, despite its unsophisticated and often sentimental viewpoint, struck a chord with young readers because it was written by one of their own. So, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that the failings of the movie are really the failings of the novel. But as one insightful critic noted, "none of this will make the slightest difference to any true Hinton fan, who will find the impassioned hyperbole exactly right for this magnetic classic."
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Gian-Carlo Coppola, Gray Frederickson, Fred Roos
Screenplay: S.E. Hinton, Kathleen Rowell
Art Direction: Gary Fettis
Cinematography: Stephen H. Burum
Costume Design: Marjorie Bowers
Film Editing: Anne Goursaud
Original Music: Carmine Coppola
Principal Cast: C. Thomas Howell (Ponyboy Curtis), Matt Dillon (Dallas Winston), Ralph Macchio (Johnny Cade), Patrick Swayze (Darrel Curtis), Rob Lowe (Sodapop Curtis).
By Bill Goodman