So what do we think of it nowadays?
Obviously, when "The Defiant Ones" first came out, it was probably a
revolutionary idea: a white man and a black man chained to each other
escape from a chain gang and have to put aside their differences to
survive. I guess that nowadays, we look at it and feel that they were
trying to look good by portraying social issues. No matter, it is a
pretty good movie, and Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier do an intense job
as John "Joker" Jackson and Noah Cullen, respectively. Not to sound
wimpy or anything, but the movie does have a good point in affirming
that if we want to accomplish our goals, we do have to accept each
other. Stanley Kramer did always have some good ideas for movies, with
this one, as well as "Inherit the Wind", "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad
World" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"..
Brave but over-earnest allegory
A film very much of its time, which I don't think personally has aged
too well, although it still makes for some interesting and occasionally
viewing. The writing of the movie is very much in the shadow of
Steinbeck and Tennessee Williams, against the background of the
burgeoning Civil Rights movement in America at the time, but for me,
buckles under the weight of its own over-earnest good intentions,
despite the considerable efforts of both cast and crew.
I was surprised to learn that the screenplay wasn't adapted originally
from a play, given the amount of static movement in the film coupled
with a lot of speechifying. I also just couldn't get my head round the
premise of two racially different felons just happening to be chained
together and finding themselves on the run together in the Southern
States, all the film's gritty realism scuppered for the sake of
There's still a lot to savour, the cinematography is excellent in its
near-documentary realism, while the two leads throw themselves
unstintingly into very exacting physical parts. I like both Curtis and
Poitier but wasn't completely convinced by their respective
performances, Curtis's accent comes and goes and you can see him
straining to act seriously in the first half of the film - however he
improves as the film progresses and ultimately convinces by the ending.
Poitier is again forced to adopt a degree of racial stereotyping,
notably his crooning of the plantation-type song, but his acting is
more consistent that Curtis and for me more enjoyable. However as
stated above the idea that these two, the racially prejudiced Curtis
and the proud Negro Poitier could get along for more than five minutes,
never mind pour out their collective hearts along the way as the get
all philosophical and universal on us, is too much to swallow.
In support, Cara Williams is fine as the abandoned country wife,
desperate for love and a future with Curtis (there's an excellent
dissolve shot as their relationship is consummated) but what a
difference it would have made to the dynamics of the film if she had
fallen for Poitier instead - not, of course that such a storyline film
could ever have been green-lighted at the time, while Theodore Bikel is
excellent as the pursuing sheriff who retains his humanity, refusing to
bow to the pressure of his posse to bring the wanted duo back more dead
than alive. The petty squabbling of the pursuing pack, together with
the lynch-mob mentality of a small outpost where the convicts seek food
are obviously thrown up as contrast to the developing get-along
relationship between the escapees, but as I indicated it was shown in
too sharp relief.
Certainly a worthy and well-meaning film but too unbelievable and
portentous to really hit home, at least with me..