‘The Outsiders’ Ending Explained – Why did Johnny tell Ponyboy to stay gold?

The Outsiders Ending Explained

The Outsiders is a much-loved Francis Ford Coppola film that was released in 1983. It was adapted from the young adult novel by S.E. Hinton and featured a fantastic cast of young actors at the start of their careers. Tom Cruise, Matt Dillon, Patrick Swayze, and Rob Lowe are just some of the faces you will recognise if you sit down to watch this wonderful movie.

However, the film really belongs to C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio who play Ponyboy and Johnny. Both actors went on to do other things but they never quite received the big Hollywood parts that their fellow cast members received. Macchio, of course, is now known for Cobra Kai so he has recently found his way back into the spotlight. But for Howell, it is the role of Ponyboy Curtis for which he will always be remembered.

What is ‘The Outsiders’ about?

The Outsiders takes place in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the 1960s. On the surface, it is about two gangs, the Greasers and the Socs, who are on both ends of the economic divide. They regularly clash throughout the movie with one pivotal moment being a large-scale rumble (gang fight) between them.

However, the film is more of an intimate drama about sensitive teen Ponyboy Curtis than a tale about gang wars. He is the youngest of three recently orphaned brothers – the others being Sodapop (Rob Lowe) and Darrel (Patrick Swayze) – and it’s clear that he is markedly different to the people he is growing up with.

Ponyboy is good friends with an older member of the Greasers gang, Dallas (Matt Dillon), who offers him brotherly support when his real brothers aren’t around. He is also friends with 16-year old Johnny (Ralph Macchio), who is only a couple of years older than him.

The events of the film are told from Ponyboy’s perspective, as they were in the original novel, and through this, we get to experience a coming of age story that is fraught with high emotion.

What happens to Ponyboy?

After a night out at a drive-in movie theatre, Ponyboy arrives home at 2 am. His strict older brother Darry is angry that Ponyboy has arrived home so late and the two get into an argument.

After Darry strikes him, Ponyboy runs away and meets up with Johnny, who is asleep in the local park. Things go from bad to worse when Soc members Bob and Randy arrive and attack the two boys. Bob pushes Ponyboy’s head into a fountain and nearly drowns him. Johnny comes to his friend’s defence and stabs Bob. Unfortunately, Bob is killed.

Ponyboy and Johnny seek support from Dallas and he tells them to hide out in a church in a nearby town. After arriving at the church, they set up camp, cut one another’s hair so they won’t be recognised, and spend time reflecting on their life and troubles.

To wile away the time, Ponyboy reads extracts of Gone With the Wind to Johnny. They also look at the beauty of a sunset together and Ponyboy is inspired to recite words from a poem.

What is the poem?

The poem is ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ by Robert Frost. It is as follows:

“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.”

On the surface, Frost’s poem is about the beauty of nature and how things that are beautiful eventually fade. However, within the context of the film, it can also symbolise childhood innocence, which Ponyboy and Johnny are on the verge of losing forever. It can also symbolise the end of their idyllic time at the church where they are reading, talking, and enjoying the scenery around them. For the two boys, this time is ‘golden’ but there is the looming inevitability that they will have to return home to face the consequences of Johnny’s actions.

The poem has more significance later in the film.

Do Ponyboy and Johnny return home?

Yes, but not before meeting up with Dallas who comes to tell Ponyboy that his brother is sorry for hitting him. They head out to lunch and then return to the church to collect their belongings only to discover that it is on fire. Unfortunately, a visiting school group have become trapped inside but the three boys bravely enter the burning building to rescue the confined children.

They manage to get the children out but when the building collapses, Johnny, who is still inside, is badly burned and injured.

On their return home, the three spend time in the local hospital. Ponyboy and Dallas are released relatively quickly but because Johnny’s injuries are so severe, he has to remain in his hospital bed.

Mercifully, none of the boys are held accountable for Bob’s death. Instead, they are hailed as heroes for saving the group of school children.

What happens next?

As Johnny remains in hospital in a critical condition, Ponyboy, Dallas, and the other Greasers have a rumble with the Socs.

When the fight is over, Ponyboy and Dallas return to the hospital to tell Johnny about the fight. While there, Johnny tells them nothing good will come from fighting. In his dying breath, he also tells Ponyboy to ‘stay gold.’

Sadly, there is more tragedy to come. Dallas, grief-stricken after Johnny’s death, runs away and holds up a convenience store with an unloaded gun. When the Greasers learn of this, they run to his location. Sadly, they fail to save their friend. The police arrive and, believing the gun is loaded, shoot and kill Dallas.

As the film draws to a close, we see Ponyboy sitting in his bedroom. He is reading a letter that Johnny left for him before he died. In the letter, he tells Ponyboy that it was worth sacrificing his life for the lives of the kids in the church. He also gives his interpretation of the Robert Frost poem.

Why does Johnny tell Ponyboy to stay gold?

Ponyboy didn’t understand what Johnny meant by this when he heard him say it in the hospital but as he reads Johnny’s letter, the meaning of what his friend was trying to say dawns on him. In a voiceover, we hear Johnny say:

“I’ve been thinking about … that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant, your gold when your a kid, like green. When you’re a kid everything’s new, dawn. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony, that’s gold. Keep it that way; it’s a good way to be.”

In essence, he is telling Ponyboy to stay innocent and to remain good. He is asking him to remain optimistic about life and his future, and to be true to himself. He is telling Ponyboy this because he is different to the rest of the Greasers. He is kind, caring, and peaceful, unlike some of the other members of the gang.

It could also be interpreted as Johnny trying to protect the life of his friend. By asking him to ‘stay gold’ he is also asking him to ‘stay alive.’

Robert Frost’s poem said “nothing gold can stay” but Johnny is trying to reverse this when encouraging his friend to stay the same and never change.

Stay Gold: A message for us all

To confirm the interpretations from Johnny’s letter, Stevie Wonder’s song ‘Stay Gold’ then plays out over the closing credits. The lyrics are as poignant as the words Johnny used and are worth reflecting on.

Why? Well, the reminder to ‘stay gold’ is for every one of us. We can all get caught up in our adult responsibilities and forget about our hopes, dreams, and the innocent thoughts that once lived within us. While we can never get our childhood years back, we can still bring back the memories of our youth and perhaps rekindle the spark that life and its pressures have tried to snuff out.

“Seize upon that moment long ago
One breath away and there you will be
So young and carefree
Again you will see
That place in time…so gold

Steal away into that way back when
You thought that all would last forever
But like the weather
Nothing can ever…and be in time
Stay gold”

Lyrics by Stevie Wonder


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