Revisiting The Outsiders, Coppola’s unexpectedly life-affirming tale of gang life

The eighties spawned a number of glossy movies full of good looking actors, the type that belong to the brat-pack genre – most of which lacked any real substance and have aged badly. There is one film, however, that has stood the test of time: Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal 1983 movie The Outsiders.

An adaptation of Hinton’s 1967 novel, The Outsiders tells the story of 14-year-old Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) who lives with his two older brothers Darrel (Patrick Swayze) and Sodapop (Rob Lowe) in a low-income neighbourhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They are part of a gang who call themselves the Greasers – rivals to the Socs, a group of rich kids from the wealthy part of the town. While both gangs take every opportunity to harass each other, an evening of drunkenness and violence quickly escalates to murder. What follows is Ponyboy’s attempt at escaping the law and the consequences of his actions.

In an early scene, we see Ponyboy accosted by a few Socs on his way home from the cinema. They have barely put a blade to his throat before the other Greasers get there and chase the bullies away. Darrel, Greaser gang leader, mildly admonishes Ponyboy for not carrying a blade on him at all times. It’s the kind of thing you expect a movie gang leader to say – except Patrick Swayze’s delivery is so gentle, you’d think he was telling Ponyboy off for not doing homework. Moments later, he does exactly that. Darrel is the gang leader, but he’s also the responsible older brother.

Later that night, we see that Sodapop and Ponyboy sleep in the same bed. They sleep back-to-back, until Sodapop feels Ponyboy shivering and turns over to put an arm around his younger brother. It’s worth noting that in recent years, Hinton has admitted to writing fan fiction based on the characters from the CW show Supernatural – another story in which the power of brotherly love trumps all.

Another element that distinguishes The Outsiders from other ’80s teen gang movies is the distinct lack of gore and grit. When Ponyboy and Johnny are unexpectedly involved in an altercation with some Socs late one night, Johnny ends up fatally stabbing a rival. But the actual stabbing is never shown: instead we see a cartoonish splash of red on screen that serves as a stand-in for the real violence.

At one point in the movie, a rumble between the Greasers and the Socs – the supposed big event of the year – looks like a comically staged fight, a scene for all of the good-looking actors playing the Greasers to flex their muscles and stare menacingly at the camera. Predictably, they win easily. Later, the boys, along with Dallas, save several children trapped in a fire, a scene that conveniently serves to redeem the protagonists, who have become heroes, murder forgotten.

As much as Hinton wanted to tell the story of teenage gang violence, Coppola’s stylistic choices mean the film touches upon – but never fully commits to – to its gritty subject matter. The story of brotherly love overrides all other elements – including murder – giving the film a warm, life-affirming core that is absent from other gang films of the era, such as River’s Edge, which also deals with teenage violence.

At its heart, The Outsiders is about the lives of a group of misunderstood kids who become victims of their circumstance. It doesn’t really deliver an accurate depiction of gang life in small town America in the ’50s and ’60s, but it definitely makes for some heartwarming Sunday lunch viewing.

By Neha Shende

Neha lives in Lille, France, where she works as an English language assistant. Before this, she was a financial journalist in Mumbai, India. She enjoys singing, binge-watching baking videos and and watching slasher films from the early 2000s: House of Wax is her all-time favourite.