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Francis' Coppola's currency as a great filmmaker has dwindled in recent years, but the fallout began a quarter of a century ago when his Zoetrope empire crumbled with the box office failure of One from the Heart. The director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now found himself in the same commercial riptide other directors had to endure, having to come up with a hit to stay solvent.
His first post- genius movie is The Outsiders, from an intimate and sensitive novel about displaced teens struggling in a gang environment in Oklahoma. Coppola boosts the book's modest graces to the level of a mini-epic, hyping the drama into the 'Gone With the Wind' of teen gang tales. The resulting movie retains all the problems of earlier delinquency movies underneath its overproduced melodramatics.
This new DVD reinstates over two reels of footage cut for the original theatrical release. The additions lend greater depth and breadth to the story and characters while changing the picture's overall look - both the beginning and conclusion are now different. As if sensing the over-emotionalism of the original cut, Coppola also jettisons some of his own father's music score in favor of period radio rock 'n roll, in the tradition of American Graffiti. Both changes are a big improvement.
The Outsiders is a curious case of a movie adaptation drowned by too much creative input. Francis Coppola refers to it repeatedly as a Gone with the Wind for teens, which perfectly describes the problem. All the production trimmings and overheated drama are just too much of a good thing.
It's almost nostalgic to see a movie where race and ethnicity are not issues. The dividing line in Tulsa is between rich and poor. The Greasers mostly have to walk while the Socs have been given cars by their parents. The Socs behave like preppy boys and wear swanky threads, yet are unaccountably into gang fighting. S.E. Hinton was there and this is her story, yet the movie is almost as stylized as West Side Story.
The book's focus on the interior dilemma of young Ponyboy Curtis is only partially rendered in Coppola's film, which instead stages the story's major events as if they were chapters in a homegrown epic: Ponyboy's fated encounter with Sherri at the drive-in, the knife fight at the fountain, the exile to the (oh-so symbolic) abandoned church on the hill, the all-out rumble. A simple telling of the story is what was needed, but Coppola's instinct is to constantly hype the drama.
The Outsiders glorifies gang life by making the Greasers loyal pals that risk their lives for each other and otherwise form an insulating shield against the blindness of the outside world. The big rumble is a Gettysburg-like melee where nobody is seriously hurt, and the Greaser victory celebrates the gang's goon mentality. And yet the "sensitive" direction constantly insists that the young thugs are soulful types at heart, and makes most of them verbally articulate about their problems. Every one of the lead characters has at least one if not four teary-eyed moments of emotional angst and bonding. The Outsiders is the gooshiest teen epic ever, especially considering that there is next to no female presence - it's a boy's life, all the way.
The reaffirming music track and beautiful visuals make being a Greaser look very attractive. Yes, Ponyboy has no way to counter the peer pressure that won't allow Sherri to acknowledge him in public, but that happens to every kid outside elite social circles, not just misunderstood poor boys. Finally, the conflict between hooliganism and responsible behavior is a joke. Like a good father, older brother Darry worries about Ponyboy being out late, yet he's also the ringleader for warfare in the streets. The film sees no contradiction in this.
Despite excellent acting, the other characters stack up as familiar clueless rebels from late- '50s teensploitation. Matt Dillon plays a teen punk from the James Dean mold, and we're asked to consider him a tragic figure. To make the fugitive Ponyboy and Johnny Cade into heroes (and to sidestep the need to deal with their real problems) the story suddenly gives them an opportunity to rescue some helpless children trapped in a fire. That cheap story device hasn't been used since the giant gorilla Mighty Joe Young encountered a burning orphanage. Joe's heroism helped him beat a criminal rap as well.
Johnny Cade does pay a terrible price for his heroics, in The Outsiders' one instance of facing up to the real consequences in life. It remains an isolated event with limited influence. When the toughest member of the Greasers compliments young Ponyboy as being worthy of manhood, he cites Ponyboy's role in killing a Soc, not the fire rescue.
The height of juvenile fictioneering comes when Ponyboy's diploma-saving writing assignment turns out to be the very story we're watching. Before one can say, "Call me Ishmael," we've got an instant classic on our hands, as well as a classroom lesson about the importance of creative writing.
Copppola's The Outsiders is something of an instant classic when it comes to its miracle cast. The only movie that can boast as many future male stars in their salad days is The Magnificent Seven. Joining Matt Dillon, Ralph Macchio and Patrick Swayze in future fame are Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and a barely-recognizable Tom Cruise, crooked teeth and all. Each actor shows a degree of promise, with budding Karate Kid Macchio doing particularly well. Along with C. Thomas Howell and Matt Dillon, he actually looks like he's of high school age.
Dramatic choices aside, Coppola's direction is assured and the film has fine cinematography. The reworked music track repeats a surfing tune as a riff for the Greasers, and for the most part doesn't use its songs as jukebox wallpaper.
Warners' DVD of The Outsiders is overloaded with goodies for the film's fans, most of whom have only seen the original short version pan-scanned on cable television. This handsome enhanced transfer is full widescreen and begins with a new title sequence. One new scene has Ponyboy and his brother Sodapop talking in a shared bed, which anyone could guess would give teen audiences something to jeer at. Coppola holds down one audio commentary, explaining as best he can his changes to the film. A second commentary assembles Dillon, Howell, Lane, Lowe, Macchio and Swayze (actually, two are edited in from a separate session) for a relaxed chat and mutual adoration session. Both commentaries begin with brief on-camera intros, an especially nice touch.
Extras on the second disc begin with Staying Gold, a lengthy making-of docu. Another featurette shows author S. E. Hinton on Location in Tulsa, and a vintage NBC news story backs up Coppola's claim that the film project originated with a petition sent him by a school class. Cast members take turns reading passages from the Hinton book in another extra, and two trailers are also included.
In addition to a fat selection of deleted scenes, the most entertaining menu item is a generous helping of screen tests and audition trials with all the hopeful actors. Producer Fred Roos helped Coppola hold a day-long mass audition with dozens of notable hopefuls. The video includes a lot of name talent that didn't make the cut.
With some movies DVD revisionism can be a great thing. Coppola has restored The Outsiders much closer to what he originally intended, and improved his picture in the bargain.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Outsiders: The Complete Novel rates: