Patrick Swayze’s second feature film role in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1983 film The Outsiders, based on the novel by S.E. Hinton. According to The New York Times, it was a librarian and a petition from middle school students that convinced Coppola to make the film.
The cast of this movie is truly a who’s who of the Brat Pack. Patrick Swayze was the eldest (and only one I wouldn’t consider a Brat Packer or at least Brat Pack adjacent) playing the father-figure of the group at 29. You wouldn’t know it from his perennial baby face, but Ralph Macchio was the only other lead cast member over the age of twenty at the time filming began. Tom Cruise hadn’t even had his teeth fixed yet, though he did remove a cap to make himself appear more street-tough for the film.
This is the first film Patrick Swayze would appear in with C. Thomas Howell. They would appear together again in the following year’s Red Dawn, alongside Jennifer Grey, and in Grandview, U.S.A. — released one week prior to Red Dawn. Swayze would also appear on screen again with Rob Lowe, playing Lowe’s mentor in the hockey film Youngblood.
The Hollywood Reporter, reviewed Swayze’s role in The Outsiders favorably overall, though not without criticism of Darry as a character: “Patrick Swayze makes a strong impression as Howell’s older brother, although the script has him a brute one minute, a compassionate pal the next and dilutes his possibilities.” This is fairly true to my memory of the character from the book as well. S.E. Hinton wrote the book between the ages of fifteen and sixteen and quite possibly grasped the younger characters better than she would have understood their pseudo-father Darry. Or perhaps, this hot and cold demeanor is a fairly accurate portrayal of a young man in his circumstances. Patrick Swayze may have been twenty-nine, but I believe Darry was written a bit younger, perhaps in his early twenties.
The film is solidly good. It’s hard to go wrong with a Coppola flick. Stevie Wonder wrote an original song based on Johnny’s last words to Ponyboy and Van Morrison re-recorded “Gloria,” which he originally performed with Them in 1965. But the most interesting thing about The Outsiders is the film’s legacy. C. Thomas Howell and Ralph Macchio regularly visit schools for screenings and talkbacks. They describe kids that are still enthralled with the movie and use it as medium for discussing bullying, social, and class issues. And even more interesting, is the queer reading of the movie — though S.E. Hinton staunchly denies it.
It may not have been S.E. Hinton’s intention, but The Outsiders certainly reads like a tale of first love in many ways. I can remember finishing this book in the public library when I was eleven years old. I locked myself in the bathroom so I could cry privately after I read the part where Johnny died. I felt a little silly, but I had developed a crush on Johnny, largely because of how he is portrayed through Ponyboy’s eyes and through the tenderness he shares with Dallas. Are either of those relationship necessarily romantic, no? But they could be or one day could have become so.
Personally, I’m really disappointed that S.E. Hinton didn’t embrace the queer messaging even if that’s not what she intended as a teenage writer. The text certainly does lend itself to a wide range of interpretations. That’s the best part of books and movies, you can take from them what you personally relate to and what feels most cathartic to your individual experience in life. Books and movies should be more inclusive so that more people can have that experience.
The house used in the film is now a museum that is open to the general public, offers student tours, and private screenings of the film.
Join me next week for Red Dawn.
Sources & Further Reading