Stanley Kramer (director)
11 June 2018 (released)
14 June 2018
Another early film (1958) to look at America’s Deep South and its 'race' problem, starring Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped convicts shackled together who must put prejudice aside in order to survive.
Directed by Stanley Kramer, THE DEFIANT ONES won an Academy Award for Sam Leavitt’s superb b/w cinematography and another Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Poitier won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the 1958 Berlin Film Festival. Kramer would return to the same area eleven years later with GUESS WHO`S COMING TO DINNER? - again starring Sidney Poitier (it missed out on an Academy Award). Bearing in mind the time it is set in, THE DEFIANT ONES, originally a story by Nedrick Young and scripted by Harold Jacob Smith, is a very good idea and it works extremely well.
The film kicks into action when a prison truck containing a number of men handcuffed together in twosomes is driving along a rainy road somewhere in the Deep South. One of the prisoners is Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier), laughing adversity in the face by never stopping singing. The other prisoner – handcuffed to Cullen by his wrist – is John ‘Joker’ Jackson (Tony Curtis). One of the guards screams at Cullen to shut up and the comment, complete with racist slur, is re-iterated by Jackson, a racist in his own right. Cullen is none too pleased about this, however, these men are chained together so there is little he can do. Mind you, as far as the upper echelons are concerned there is no difference between Cullen and Jackson except that one is black and the other is white. They are both criminals. The next minute the truck crashes and before you know it our two protagonists manage to escape. Neither Cullen nor Jackson are actually idiots and it doesn't take them long to realize that there is simply no point in their coming to fisticuffs. They may think they hate each other but the truth is that they need each other… and like most underprivileged people they are only really in jail by default. For Cullen and Jackson this is going to be voyage of discovery (hopefully also for every racist bigot out there too) as they go on their long run.
Fleeing through an unforgiving terrain and hunted by a posse, the law and some specially trained bloodhounds, the two men don’t give up easily. Despite their best efforts to get their shackles off, there is little they can do without a hammer and a chisel. After a desperate break-in into a general store looking for food, things go pear-shaped and they get caught. They manage to survive a near lynching by some ignorant townsfolk after Cullen spits in the face of the bigot big mouth Mack (Claude Akins, later to play another bigot, Urko, in PLANET OF THE APES). Fortunately they find a kindred spirit in Big Sam (Lon Chaney Jr. in a brief but telling appearance). Soon though, Cullen and Jackson’s gradual friendship is going to be tested on a far greater level when they run into a little chap called Billy (Kevin Coughlin) who takes them home to his rather attractive mother (Cara Williams) whose husband has abandoned her…
Ultimately these guys aren’t really bad blokes but circumstance and fate had different ideas. Or perhaps these are two guys who just value the word ‘Freedom’ too much. However, it being 1958, did you think it would be a happy ending when, in the final sequence, they saw that fast train a-comin? The final touch with Cullen and Jackson cradled together and singing the song that Cullen was singing at the film's beginning may even bring a tear to your eye. Poitier and Curtis (who really was quite capable of giving a lot more depth than many gave him credit for) excel here. THE DEFIANT ONES is a deep, compelling and compassionate film that should still be shown in schools. It is also nice that Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) is depicted with humanity. There may still be hope then for us all?