“The Defiant Ones” is a 1958 American drama film which tells the story of two escaped prisoners, one black and one white, who are chained to each other. It stars Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier. Directed by Stanley Kramer. Black & white. 96 minutes.
On a stormy night in the American South, a truck transporting chained prisoners crashes over a barrier, and two prisoners escape: a black man Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) and a white man John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis).
Cullen’s right wrist is tied to Joker’s left wrist by 29 inch long shackles. Though they hate each other because of racial prejudice, they are forced to cooperate and run together because they cannot undo the chain.
Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) starts searching for Cullen and Joker in cooperation with state police captain Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw), who leads the armed police force, search-dog trainer Solly (King Donovan), who has bloodhounds and Dobermanns with him, and a group of civilian volunteers.
Though Joker hoped to escape to Pineville, North Carolina, Cullen and Joker go north to jump onto a train to Ohio because Cullen hates the racially segregated South.
They cooperate to cross the river. They kill a frog in the swamp, roast it over a fire, and devour it.
They stop at a small settlement near a turpentine plant to obtain food and tools to break the chain. They sneak into a general store, and they are captured by the inhabitants.
One of the inhabitants, Mack (Claude Akins) is going to lynch them to death, but a big man called “Big Sam” (Lon Chaney Jr.) stops him. Cullen and Joker are bound and confined by the inhabitants.
Next morning, Big Sam, who is also a former chain-gang prisoner, secretly releases them after showing the scars on his wrist.
When Cullen and Joker are heading over to the north, they have an argument, and get into a fistfight. At that time, a boy with a hunting gun appears. Cullen robs the boy of his gun. The boy says that his name is Billy and he lives with his mother in a farm house on the hill. They make him take them to his home.
In Billy’s home, Billy’s mother (Cara Williams) lives a lonely life because her husband has abandoned his family.
Cullen and Joker make Billy’s mother serve meals, and they break their chains with a hammer.
Billy’s mother tells them that a train will cross the railroad bridge tomorrow afternoon.
Joker falls in a faint because of infection from wrist wounds. She nurses him, sitting by his bed, and spends a night with him. She is attracted to Joker.
Next morning, she tells Cullen that he will be able to reach the railroad tracks if he goes through the swamp. Cullen heads for the swamp alone.
She suggests to Joker to escape with her in her car. Joker finds that she induced Cullen to die in the dangerous, bottomless swamp to silence him. Joker grabs at her in anger because he starts having a feeling of friendship with Cullen. Billy shoots Joker with a gun, and Joker injures his shoulder. Joker follows Cullen into the swamp.
Joker catches up to Cullen and tells him about the dangerous swamp.
The posse led by sheriff Muller gets close to them. Captain Gibbons is going to set Dobermanns free to kill them, but Muller stops him.
The two men run to an approaching freight train. Cullen jumps onto one of the cars, and he holds out his hand to Joker. Joker clasps Cullen’s hand, but Cullen cannot pull him up, and both men tumble to the ground.
“The Defiant Ones” is a didactic film that preached about the need for racial tolerance in the historical context of the early civil rights movement. It is an entertaining film that can also be enjoyed as a jailbreak action movie or buddy film.
The unrealistic setting that blacks and whites are chained together in the racially segregated South at that time was introduced into the film to present the theme of animosity between races as an allegorical story.
One of the screenplay writers, Nedrick Young was credited as his pseudonym Nathan E. Douglas because he was on the Hollywood blacklist in the Red Scare after WWII.
The song which Cullen sings in the film is the blue song “Long Gone” based on a Kentucky folk song. It was composed by W. C. Handy, written by Chris Smith, and published in 1920.
The film won many awards, including Best Cinematography (Black-and-White) and Best Original Screenplay at the 31st Academy Awards, and Silver Bear for Best Actor (Sidney Poitier) at the 1958 Berlin Film Festival.
The American TV film “The Defiant Ones” (1986) directed by David Lowell Rich and the American film “Fled” (1996) directed by Kevin Hooks are remakes of the film.