Sunday Morning at the Movies: The Outsiders

A decade after winning an Oscar for both The Godfather and The Godfather Part 2, Francis Ford Coppola made two films based on the novels of S.E Hinton; first was The Outsiders, written by Hinton in 1965 when she was still in high school, and then came Rumble Fish which was written a few years later. Hinton’s prototypical work virtually defined what has come to be known as YA, or Young Adult, literature.

Both films star Matt Dillon, are set in the Oklahoma, and concern the plight of lower middle class white boys who are largely left to raise themselves in post-World War 2 industrial America. In both stories, younger boys are being mentored, if that’s what you can call it, by older boys into a life that not explicitly criminal but is far short of respectable. S.E. Hinton’s boys are free range, wandering in and out of diners and pool halls and drive-in theaters, with no agenda and no clocks. Authority figures, to the degree there are any, are all unbending stiffs who represent everything the boys don’t want to be.

In both stories, gangs make up the family structure and relationships are very close. The boys like to fight, but they fight relatively clean; there are weapons but no guns. In The Outsiders, Darrel “Darry” Curtis (played by Patrick Swayze) is the defacto father of his two younger brothers, but he is the lead of the Greasers, the wrong side of the tracks kids, and so he must fight. All the Greasers fight, until one of the weaker ones kills the leader of a rival gang, and suddenly, must go on the lamb to avoid a murder charge. The Outsiders is an ensemble film that hangs on Matt Dillon’s performance but rides on the Greasers and their poetic alienation pain.

Here, Johnny and Pony Boy wake up in the church where they are hiding and notice the beautiful colors and hues that make up the world they live in:

Hinton conceived of poor disaffected young men as poetic and loyal wanderers. They were blue collar poets whose defining characteristic was their lack of pretension. That their lives would end in violence or continue in poverty was a given.

Rumble Fish has many of the same characteristics of The Outsiders, but it is far more abstract. It’s shot in black and white and the soundtrack is minimalist. The older gang member goes by the name The Motorcycle Boy, and Matt Dillon plays his younger brother, Rusty James. Rusty James does all the things his older brother does, just not as well. He fights and wins, but gets badly injured. He shoots pool, but loses. He’s attractive to the ladies, but loses his girlfriend (played by Diane Lane, the Muse in both films) to a smarter rival gang member. The Motorcycle Boy is absent for much of the film, and only referred to in reverent tones, but then he returns from a trip to California where he met the mother that abandoned both boys long ago.

The Motorcycle Boy is talented, good looking, physical, well-read, and the master of his dysfunctional domain, and consequently, bored by life. Whereas the boys in The Outsiders are absorbed in their wandering grief, The Motorcycle Boy has passed through grief and come to tragedy. He’s moved beyond the pain of having an alcoholic father and skills that can’t easily be turned in to a profitable life and arrived at a doomed fatalism. Unlike all the others boys in the pantheon of S.E. Hinton characters, The Motorcycle Boy has witnessed the existential tragedy of life, and given himself over to it.

The Motorcycle Boy is the penultimate S. E. Hinton character and a template for many Young Adult literature characters. Such young people are just not interested in civilized life. Civilization takes a lot of sublimating desires and suffering fools, if not gladly, then effectively, and some people are not cut out for it.

When The Motorcycle Boy enters the story at the half way point in Rumble Fish, he is at the end of his life. He has come to back to Oklahoma to die. His final chapter was to Go West, on his motorcycle, where he finds the last piece of the tragic puzzle. On his quest, he locates his mother who fled Oklahoma and abandoned her husband and her two boys.  The Motorcycle Boy discovers she is on the edges of Hollywood and living with a movie producer. He does not speak ill of her to his little brother, but clearly, she offered no hope or redemption. She wounded his father and left a void in the life of both boys simply to pursue her idle pleasures. His hopes were in finding her, and he found her empty.

Here, The Motorcycle Boy tells Rusty about their mother, and California.

So, The Motorcycle Boy has simply had it with humans, and like many wounded people, pours his soulful compassion out on animals. His final act is to break into a pet store and attempt to take the fish in the tanks down to the river so they can be free. The river, he tells Rusty, goes all the way to the ocean, and he pleads with Rusty to take the motorcycle and leave. Freed from his brother’s legend and now in possession of the motorcycle, Rusty rides to the ocean, where one hopes he finds his place in the sun and never returns upstream.

S. E. Hinton