The Defiant Ones

The Defiant Ones is a 1958 adventure drama film which tells the story of two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who are shackled together and who must co-operate in order to survive. It stars Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

The Defiant Ones
Theatrical release poster
Directed byStanley Kramer
Produced byStanley Kramer
Written byHarold Jacob Smith
Nedrick Young
StarringSidney Poitier
Tony Curtis
Music byErnest Gold
CinematographySam Leavitt
Edited byFrederic Knudtson
Curtleigh Productions
Stanley Kramer Productions
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • September 24, 1958 (1958-09-24) (New York City, New York)
  • September 27, 1958 (1958-09-27) (United States)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.5 million (US and Canadian rentals)[2]

The film was adapted by Harold Jacob Smith from the story by Nedrick Young, originally credited as Nathan E. Douglas. It was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer.

The film was highly regarded at the time of its release; it won Academy Awards for Cinematography (Black-and-White) and Original Screenplay and was nominated for seven others, including Best Picture and Best Actor for both Poitier and Curtis. Poitier won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival.


One night in the American South, a truck loaded with prisoners in the back swerves to miss another truck and crashes through a barrier. The rescuers clear up the debris and cover the men killed, however, two are missing: a black man shackled to a white man, because "the warden had a sense of humor." They are told not to look too hard as "they will probably kill each other in the first five miles." Nevertheless, a large posse and many bloodhounds are dispatched the next morning to find them. The two missing men are the black Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) and the white John "Joker" Jackson (Tony Curtis). Despite their mutual hatred, they are forced to cooperate, as they are chained together. At first their cooperation is motivated by self-preservation but gradually, they begin to respect and like each other.

Cullen and Joker flee through difficult terrain and weather, with a brief stop at a turpentine camp where they attempt to break into a general store, in hopes of obtaining food and tools to break the chain that holds them together. Instead, however, they are captured by the inhabitants, who form a lynch mob; they are saved only by the interference of "Big" Sam (Lon Chaney Jr.), a man who is appalled by his neighbors' bloodthirst. Sam persuades the onlookers to lock the convicts up and turn them in the next morning, but that night, he secretly releases them, after revealing to them that he is also a former chain-gang prisoner.

Finally, they run into a young boy named Billy (Kevin Coughlin). They make him take them to his home and his mother (Cara Williams), whose husband has abandoned his family. The escapees are finally able to break their chains. When they spend the night there, the lonely woman is attracted to Joker and wants to run off with him. She advises Cullen to go through the swamp to reach the railroad tracks, while she and Joker drive off in her car. The men agree to split up. However, after Cullen leaves, the woman reveals that she had lied — she sent Cullen into the dangerous swamp to die to eliminate any chance he would be captured and perhaps reveal where Joker had gone. Furious, Joker runs after his friend; as he leaves, Billy shoots him.

Wounded, Joker catches up to Cullen and warns him about the swamp. As the posse led by humane Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) gets close, the escapees can hear the dogs on their trail. They also hear a train whistle and run toward it. Cullen catches up to the train and jumps aboard. In this pivotal scene, Joker is running alongside, desperately trying to catch up. Cullen calls to Joker, urging him to run faster, and holds out his hand for Joker to catch hold. They are so close. Their fingers touch, trying to catch a grip, but are unable to do so. Cullen could go on alone, but will not leave his friend. As Joker falters, weakened from loss of blood and pain, Cullen abandons hope of escape and jumps from the train. Both men tumble to the ground. Too exhausted to run, they realize all they can do is wait for their pursuers. The sheriff finds Cullen singing defiantly and Joker lying in his arms.



Robert Mitchum, a veteran of a Southern chain gang, turned down the role of Jackson because blacks and whites would never be chained together in the segregated South. The story was corrupted into the claim - repeated by Curtis and others - that Mitchum refused to work with a black man. Kramer wrote that Poitier was initially unsure of Curtis' casting but became supportive. Curtis, however, denied this; he stated that he had contractual rights to approve who would play Cullen. However, despite Curtis' many later claims and stories, Kramer had originally cast Poitier and Marlon Brando as the two leads when a previous contractual obligation prevented Poitier from being able to accept the role. Kramer wanted Poitier for the role so badly that he delayed the film's production, which led to Brando having to decline because the delay caused shooting to overlap with another obligation he had. Curtis was cast afterwards. Curtis did request Poitier's name appear with his above the movie title marking a first for Poitier in his career.[3][4]:30, 280–281[5]

Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, of the Our Gang comedies, has a small role. It was his last before his death.


The film earned rentals of $2.5 million in the United States and Canada but did not perform as well overseas[2] but made a profit of $1 million.[1]

Critical response

When the film was first released, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, lauded the production and the acting in the film, writing, "A remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea—the idea of men of different races brought together to face misfortune in a bond of brotherhood—is achieved by producer Stanley Kramer in his new film, The Defiant Ones... Between the two principal performers there isn't much room for a choice. Mr. Poitier stands out as the Negro convict and Mr. Curtis is surprisingly good. Both men are intensely dynamic. Mr. Poitier shows a deep and powerful strain of underlying compassion...In the ranks of the pursuers, Theodore Bikel is most impressive as a sheriff with a streak of mercy and justice, which he has to fight to maintain against a brutish state policeman, played by Charles McGraw."[6]

Variety magazine likewise praised the acting and discussed the film's major theme, writing, "The theme of The Defiant Ones is that what keeps men apart is their lack of knowledge of one another. With that knowledge comes respect, and with respect comradeship and even love. This thesis is exercised in terms of a colored and a white man, both convicts chained together as they make their break for freedom from a Southern prison gang. The performances by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are virtually flawless. Poitier captures all of the moody violence of the convict, serving time because he assaulted a white man who had insulted him. It is a cunning, totally intelligent portrayal that rings powerfully true...Curtis delivers a true surprise performance. He starts off as a sneering, brutal character, willing to fight it out to-the-death with his equally stubborn companion. When, in the end, he sacrifices a dash for freedom to save Poitier, by saving him from the swamp, he has managed the transition with such skill that sympathy is completely with him."[7]


Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards Best Picture Stanley Kramer Nominated
Best Director Nominated
Best Actor Tony Curtis Nominated
Sidney Poitier Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Theodore Bikel Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Cara Williams Nominated
Best Cinematography Sam Leavitt Won
Best Film Editing Frederic Knudtson Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Harold Jacob Smith
Nedrick Young
BAFTA Awards Best Foreign Actor Tony Curtis Nominated
Sidney Poitier Won
Best Film of any Source Nominated
Bambi Award Best Actor - International Tony Curtis Nominated
Berlin International Film Festival Silver Berlin Bear Sidney Poitier Won
Golden Berlin Bear Stanley Kramer Nominated
Bodil Award Best American Film Won
DGA Award Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Nominated
Edgar Allan Poe Award Best Motion Picture Harold Jacob Smith
Nedrick Young
Golden Globe Awards Best Motion Picture – Drama Won
Best Director Stanley Kramer Nominated
Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama Tony Curtis Nominated
Sidney Poitier Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Cara Williams Nominated
Golden Reel Award Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing - Dialogue and ADR for Feature Film Won
Laurel Awards Top Drama 4th place
Top Male Dramatic Performance Sidney Poitier Nominated
Top Male Supporting Performance Theodore Bikel 5th place
Top Cinematography - Black and White Sam Leavitt Won
Top Score Ernest Gold 5th place
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Film Won
Best Director Stanley Kramer Won
Best Screenplay Harold Jacob Smith
Nedrick Young
WGA Award Best Written American Drama Won

Remakes, tributes and parodies

The basis of The Defiant Ones was revisited several times in popular media:

See also


  1. Tino Balio. United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry. University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. p. 143.
  2. "Vagaries of Overseas Playoff". Variety. May 27, 1959. p. 3. Retrieved June 16, 2019 via
  3. Private Screenings: Tony Curtis. Turner Classic Movies, January 19, 1999.
  4. Server, Lee (2001). Robert Mitchum: "Baby I Don't Care". St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-26206-X.
  5. . Turner Classic Movies, January 16, 2012.
  6. Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, September 25, 1958. Last accessed: February 23, 2011.
  7. Variety, film review, September 24, 1958. Last accessed: February 23, 2011.
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