Rarely does a director’s cut reflect a vision “truer” to a source text. Typically, it’s a case of ego (see most of the bloated Oliver Stone cuts), or a response to the stifling state of technology at the time of the original release (any of the recent Star Wars re-releases). But, like most everything else surrounding the picture, The Outsiders: The Complete Novel is quite an anomaly.
It was one of few bright spots at the start of a career slump for director Francis Ford Coppola. He had been skewered by the press for the disastrous One from the Heart (1982), and his American Zoetrope studio was nearly bankrupt. Along came a petition signed by the Lone Star Junior High School class in Fresno, fans of the S.E. Hinton book who thought Coppola would be a good choice to bring the book to the big screen after seeing The Black Stallion (1979), which Coppola had previously produced. Touched and with nothing to lose, Coppola took on the project. He removed a script doctor in favor of cutting and pasting dialogue directly from the text and went about casting the story of the underprivileged (Greasers) and the elite (Socs).
With young, mostly unknown actors, including Patrick Swayze, Ralph Macchio, and C. Thomas Howell, The Outsiders was a launching pad for most to greater box office paydays. Matt Dillon, as Greaser Dallas Winston, shines in particular. With his Elvis-like swagger and coolness, Dillon’s “Let’s do it for Johnny!” is still the most often quoted from a film loaded with catchphrases.
Including 22 minutes of restored footage, the DVD expands characters and depicts a stronger bond among the Curtis brothers (played by Swayze, Howell, and Rob Lowe), whose emotional performances were largely left on the cutting room floor when the film debuted. As a result, an almost maudlin feeling replaces the darkness, especially at Dallas’s death, which originally signified the end of the film but now gives way to a more poignant finale about a family on a journey rather than a race towards destruction.
This new upbeat version is furthered in the fresh scoring. Gone is Carmine Coppola’s moody original score, replaced with the highly touted “rousing new rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack,” which, surprisingly is more than merely a marketing gimmick. With the addition of 10 tracks, including Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Real Wild One” and six Elvis Presley tunes, a new sense of adventure permeates the movie. When Pony Boy and Johnny jump a freight train to escape the unavoidable police inquiry into the death of a Soc Johnny stabbed, the strains of “Mystery Train” make it more of a getaway than a desperate runaway. The new songs are the same ones Coppola had played for the cast to get them jacked up for a scene.
To facilitate a revealing cast commentary, Coppola invited Macchio, Howell, Swayze, and Lane to his home for a meal, wine, and reminiscing before sitting them down for their first viewing of the cut the studio vetoed in 1983, mainly because of length. Dillon and Lowe’s additional observations, separately recorded, are deftly mixed in. All the commentary is interesting, whether pointing out bloopers or referencing Dillon and Lane’s romance. The participants recall how cold the fight scene in the rain was, the gymnastic courses Coppola insisted the cast take before filming began, and how little interest Dillon had in the other young male actors. There is even a taste of bitterness during the few scenes with Tom Cruise, where his over the top competitive nature is brought up, though Lowe happily concedes they all knew he was going to make it big.
The special features offer more of the same, albeit in sometimes too short doses. Admittedly, a film from the early ’80s isn’t going to have a ton of extras available. The Outsiders relies largely on archival footage from the period and present day commentary that sometimes comes off a bit too wistful, so perhaps Coppola is on to something by keeping the entirety of extras to little more than one hour.
An integral extra feature is the NBC News Today piece from 1983, focusing on the students who started the petition. They loved the book enough to write to a famous director, and that director found it inside of himself to entertain their plea. More telling is footage of Swayze and Howell meeting with the students, thanking them for giving the actors careers with The Outsiders. S.E. Hinton herself provides a brief featurette, walking around her hometown of Tulsa, where the book was set and the film shot, playing the part of tour guide. The Greasers’ house is still standing, as is the drive-in theater that to this day occasionally shows The Outsiders.
A “casting call” feature reveals how all the young stars in Hollywood wanted in on the picture, including Anthony Michael Hall (shown), Val Kilmer, and Mickey Rourke. As we see in a making-of documentary, Coppola built up a real life rivalry between the actors in the different social groups of the story. While the Greasers were given their scripts in a plastic three-ring binder, the Socs received theirs bound in leather. During cast soccer games set up by the director, Greasers were given canvas running shoes, sweatpants, and t-shirts with their affiliation emblazoned on them, the Soc actors got top of the line new track outfits and leather sneakers. These incidents made the enmity onscreen that much more “real.”
By 1983, Hinton’s book had become something of a rite of passage for students high school age and below. It’s a classic tale of cliques and their separatism bleeding into an outside world in a harsh and violent way. The film is often overly sentimental, and the fact that Coppola was admittedly going for “a teen Gone with the Wind,” only adds to the impression. But as the story still applies, and always will, The Outsiders is one of those unique cases where the schmaltz is nothing if not acceptable. As a package, this new DVD confirms this, with the director, author, and actors gushing over the film, mainly because it came at a central point in all of their lives. From Hinton, who needed a big adaptation, Coppola, who desperately needed a hit, and the young actors who were scratching and clawing to make it in an unforgiving town, this sentiment is real, and it carried over into the soul of the picture. Nothing seems manufactured. The DVD — even with the juiced-up soundtrack and near-over-the-top commentaries — can’t compete with The Outsiders‘ realism. Instead, these extras only enhance the film in brilliant new ways.