Defiant Ones, The (1958)


Ooo look! An act of defiance!
Ooo look! An act of defiance!

Genre: Drama Crime Thriller

Starring: Sidney Poitier (In the Heat of the NightTo Sir, with Love), Tony Curtis (Some Like It HotSweet Smell of Success)

Directed By: Stanley Kramer (Inherit the WindGuess Who's Coming to Dinner)

Overview: Two shackled chain-gang prisoners must work together if they hope to succeed in their escape. Their greatest problem is each other - one is black and the other is white.

The Defiant Ones’ plot is bare-bones simple: a prison truck transporting a chain gang in The South flips over in an accident, and two men take their chance to escape. These two, however, are not of the same race. As the sheriff puts it, “They'll kill each other in five miles.” Acting much like an adventure film, these two Defiant Ones race away from the bloodhounds towards freedom, chained at the wrist, hoping to get free from their bonds and of course from one another.

Seen today, The Defiant Ones is a simple, well-written, beautifully shot film that is dramatic and escapist – no pun intended. The character arc of both the poor white John 'Joker' Jackson (Tony Curtis) and the poor black Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) is self-evident, it writes itself. Today, watching two men of opposite race in the 50s deep South working together to earn their freedom is exhilarating. The race issue is ‘the hook’, the wrench in the works that will make this thing they do a challenge. It’s good that we’ve come so far that this paradigm shift has turned this story into one that is fun, neat and witty, but seeing The Defiant Ones like this is still unfortunate. It’s not nearly as compelling or thought-provoking as it would have been in 1958. Let me give you a hint of context.

That clay pit I mention later.
In 1954, the culture-shattering Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case deemed segregating schools as unconstitutional and inherently unequal. This important judicial event helped pave the way for the modern American Civil Rights Movement. A year later in Tennessee, Rosa Parks decided that no, she would not give up her seat on the bus for a white passenger, making her one of the early figureheads of the movement. In 1957, the Governor of Little Rock, Arkansas called the National Guard to stop nine black students from attending an integrated school – national news. By 1958, the fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned racial discrimination was still a long ways off. Simply put, American race relations were strained when The Defiant Ones came out in theaters, and it was a film that had balls enough to take the moral high road and make overcoming this challenge of race the core issue facing our criminal heroes.

Though the scenes play out predictably, there are a few wonderful surprises. These include Charles McGraw in the role of sensitive sheriff Max Muller, whose approach at catching the escaped convicts is not to shoot them in the back or sic killer dogs after them. There’s an impressive scene when the two men hide in a clay pit and need to work together to climb out of those slick walls. The scene I’m finding to be the most popular though is the one when they stalk into a mining camp to steal food and tools to free their shackles. I think my favorite though is this one:

John 'Joker' Jackson: What's eatin' you? Just because I called you a ni...
Noah Cullen:
Joker: Well, that's what you are, ain't it? It's like callin' a spade a spade. I'm a honky. I don't try to argue out of it. You can call me a bohunk. I don't mind.
Cullen: You ever hear tell of a bohunk in a woodpile, Joker? You ever hear tell of "catch a bohunk by the toe"?
Joker: Don't crowd me! I didn't make up no names!
Cullen: No, you breathe it in when you're born, and you spit it out from then on.
Joker: Well, that's the way it is, and you're stuck with it, cos I didn't make any rules.
Cullen: No, but you sure live by 'em. Everybody lives by 'em. Even them swamp animals. Even that weasel.
Joker: You callin' me a weasel?
Cullen: No, I'm callin' you a white man.

Though the film today is a little too easy and obvious, there’s much to take away from it, most notably the writing. When it’s good it’s great.

And the classic cover image

Performance: 8 Cinematography: 8 Script: 9 Plot: 8 Mood: 8

Overall Rating: 82% (No Need To Resist)

I’ve always associated Sidney’s champion films with the ones I most want to see, ones whose themes are race, his big three being In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and The Defiant Ones. Before this recent viewing of The Defiant Ones, I’ve only previously seen Sidney Poitier in In the Heat of the Night. I was sure to get a stunning performance from him in this dramatic on-the-lam tale. That I did. I need to see more Poitier soon.

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can I steal this poster for filmscreed?     I'll credit you, of course.

Of course! it's awesome isn't it. In fact I thought of you when i saw it :D

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