The Outsiders: Family Solidarity and Class Warfare
Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders may at first glance seem to be a jarring departure from his critically acclaimed Godfather films of the 1970s, but a closer examination proves that this little movie is consistent with many of the themes forwarded in those two blockbusters. While The Outsiders is clearly inferior to those two movies, it remains evident that Coppola was still concerned with the theme of the importance of family as protection during class warfare.
The vast chasm that exists between the privileged socs and the greasers is made concrete through their contrasting physical differences. Subtlety is throw to the wind as both sides in this social struggle are made manifestly obvious through their choice of clothing and hair style. The rejection of ambiguity or shading between the opposing classes sacrifices individuality between the characters, but strengthens them as archetypes. What The Outsiders reveals about class struggle is that when it turns to open warfare, those on the wrong end of elitist entitlement must look to those who share their misery for protection and security. If the story were placed into contemporary times, the greasers could just as easily become dispossessed black teens living in a ghetto.
Although set during a specific time and place, Coppola is intent on giving the story a timeless and universal feel. His decision may have been influenced by the peculiarities of his source material; the substitution of nicknames for proper names for so many of the greasers obstructs the ability to differentiate them as individuals. Instead, the greasers quickly become a collective; an idea rather than a set of real people. The characters act out their story within a specific setting, but the real location is the ever-present inequality of society. Coppola follows after this idea with his persistent use of visual motifs and his choice to underline the hyper-reality of the film. The very opening of the film informs the meta-fiction construction in which the story the viewer is watching is actually just the version of the story remembered by one character. An amusing comment on the subsequent juxtaposition of the concrete with the abstract is the unlikely pairing of the classic film The Hustler with the fluff of Gidget Goes to Rome as a double feature. This small decision by Coppola subliminally sets the stage for his own jarring visual juxtapositions such as the stain of red that washes over the screen during the stabbing scene and the optical tricks used to visualize sunsets.
The sunset motif is especially interesting as it connects to the reading of Gone with the Wind. Coppola is suggesting with his painted skies and the title of Margaret Mitchell’s novel that the story of the greasers fighting against the socs is one tied to a finite point in time that will quickly pass, but the story of dispossessed people finding an alternative to traditional family by bonding together against a common enemy is infinite and forever repeating. The sun will set on boys who define themselves with greasy pompadours, but the sun will never set on class struggle.
The Outsiders sees Francis Coppola continuing to struggle with the theme of family solidarity can be used to protect a group of outsiders against the power structure, and though that theme resonates with clarity, the execution leaves much to be desire. Although intended to be symbolic, the characters are too stereotypical to provide much emotional engagement. One sympathizes with the plight of the greasers as a whole, but it is really difficult to care much about them one way or the other. By sacrificing the innate individuality of the characters to transform them into pawns within a larger social comment, ultimately Coppola commits the offense of telling a story that is too universal.