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In The Time Of Working Class Alienation- S.E. Hinton’s “The Outsiders”
The Outsiders, Rob Lowe, Tom Cruise and every other rising young male star of the 1980s worth his salt, Dian Lane, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Paramount Pictures, 1983
Recently I reviewed another film adaptation by the director Francis Ford of one of S.E. Hinton’s classic tales of American teenage working class alienation during the 1950s-1960s, “Rumblefish”. There the plot centered on the seemingly inescapable nihilism following the footsteps of a leader, and then ex-leader of a by then passé white teenage gang. That film presented the anguish of youthful working class alienation in a very different and much less glamorous light than the teenage angst films of my youth, like Marlon Brando’s “The Wild Ones” and James Dean’s “Rebel Without A Cause”. I also mentioned in that review that I had been momentarily attracted, very attracted to that ‘lifestyle,’ coming as I did from that stratum of the working class that lived with few hopes and fewer dreams. It was a very near thing that shifted me away from that life, mainly the allure of books and less dangerous exploits.
Not so here in this other outstanding tale of youthful working class alienation out in the heartland in the hill of Oklahoma, “The Outsiders”. That, notwithstanding the fact that the main character and narrator, “Pony Boy,” is also very attracted to books (although “Gone With The Wind” seems an odd choice to go ga-ga over). The difference. In “Rumblefish”, seemingly a much more experimental film on Coppola’s part and a more searing look at working class youth on Hinton’s part is filled with that unspoken danger, that unspoken destructive pathology and dead end nihilism that meant doom for at least some of the characters, and not just the easy to foresee one of death.
Superficially the plot of “The Outsiders” would have assumed that same fate. A small town out in the hill of Oklahoma where the class divisions are obvious has the working class “Greasers” lined up in combat against the middle class “Socs” with every cliché of the class struggle, except the political, thrown in for good measure. (Obviously portrayed, as well, note the sideburns and long hair on one side and the neatly –pressed chino pants on the other. You don’t need a scorecard on this one.) In summary: the two sides clash over nothing in particular except “turf”: hold grudges; seek revenge taking causalities, one fatally; and ending with a rumble where the Greasers have their momentary Pyrrhic victory.
Along the way there is plenty of time for youthful reflection about the ways of the class-ridden world, a few bouts of heroism and a little off-hand (very off-hand) romance. As much as we know about the nature of modern class society this thing rings false. Even the most alienated Greaser, played to a tee by Matt Dillon, is really only searching for meaning to his life and a little society, only to get waylaid by that life in the end. Thus, this thing turns into something more like a cautionary tale than a slice of live down at the bottom edges of society. The more circumspect and existential “Rumblefish” gets my vote any day.
Note: Part of the problem with this film cinematically is that the leading male actors here, the likes of Rob Lowe, the late Patrick Swayze, Tom Cruise and Matt Dillon are all too ‘pretty’ to be Greasers. Although one can appreciate the talent pool that came out of this film I know from real life that, while the greasers of this world may have some raw sexually attractions they would hardly grace the pages of “Gentleman’s Quarterly”, or some such magazine. These guys could. That is what rings false here, as well as the assurances, hammered home to us throughout the story, that in democratic America even the down-trodden can lift themselves up and succeed. If they would just wash up a little.