This is an important film. Set in the deep South during the years of racial segregation in the 1950s, Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones” is a story of the capacity for friendship to overcome prejudice and, when stripped of everything, the sacrifices individuals are willing to make in the name of such friendship. It’s an extraordinarily forward thinking film for its time, highlighting the inhumanity of Jim Crow pre the Civil Rights era of the 1960s while also incorporating a genuinely thrilling action story with stellar lead performances from Tony Curtis but especially so from Sidney Poitier.
“The Defiant Ones”, directed by Stanley Kramer (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World”) tells the story of Noah (Sidney Poitier) and John (Tony Curtis), a black convict and a white convict respectively who are shackled together and escape from a prisoner transport truck when it runs off the road. Bound by their chains, the two men are initially resentful of each other but are forced to cooperate for self-preservation. Eventually, with a mob of policemen (led by Theodore Bikel as a police captain in an Oscar nominated role), bloodhounds and a motley crew of curious locals chasing them all over the countryside, the two convicts come to respect each other and see beyond the dabilitating societal limitations of the time to consider each other friends.
Its quite jarring seeing the way in which the characters speaks to Noah, not only by means of the constant racial slurs but also in the way he is treated next to John, both of whom are in chains and wearing the same prison uniform. When the pair encounter a young boy, he runs to John and pleads to protect him from Noah, then asks if John is taking Noah to prison and that’s why they were chained together. Later the boy’s mother (Cara Williams in another Oscar nod) prepares a meal for John, but asks if he wants for Noah to be fed as well. It’s unsettling and horrifying, especially the sad dignity in which Noah accepts such things. There’s something incredibly powerful about Sidney Poitier’s presence on screen; he was an extraordinary actor in his prime and a true Hollywood legend, revolutionising representation of black actors on screen. I can remember using “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” as a related text in English and thinking that Poitier even then was phenomonal and I stand by that; he’s genuinely one of the better actors of the twentieth century, black or white.
I didn’t quite buy that Noah could have almost beaten a man to death (which is what he was imprisoned for), Poitier is far too likeable to play somebody who would have killed in cold blood and as such I was a little disconnected at times. Curtis however, plays the scumbag John brilliantly. John on the other hand isn’t a likeable character at all; he’s cowardly, bitter, resentful and selfish and the juxtaposing leads play off each other beautifully. Poitier and Curtis spend a lot of time together on screen, and their chemistry is impressive, especially when the dynamic starts to shift and the characters are discovering it at the same time we are as an audience. The escalations between them feel genuine, particularly when Noah is able to let loose on John and express all his angers and frustrations without the fear that would normally restrict a black man from doing so in regular society.
As an action film, its really good fun! Watching some of the scenes in this film, knowing that it was shot in 1958 with no luxury of special effects, what they manage is particularly impressive. One sequence in which the two men are stuck down a muddy hole and spend a good five minutes trying to climb out is surprisingly exciting to watch, because there’s no way they could have faked it! They’re actually stuck down there and when their shoes slip and when John grunts in pain pulling Noah up over the top, they’re barely even acting anymore. The chase scenes are done well and the final moments in which they run after a freight train and struggle to clamber aboard is gripping. The sequence in the middle of the film with the little boy and his mother I think went on for a little bit too long, as John and the boy’s mother exchange luvvy duvvy sololiquies I found myself growing impatient.
Both leads in “The Defiant Ones”, against their own expectations, discover brotherhood and sacrifice their own freedom to save the other. There is a beautiful message in this film; two men divided by the prejudices of an unjust time are bound by circumstance, chains and ultimately by friendship.
By Jock Lehman