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 by||Stanley Kramer|
|Produced by||Stanley Kramer|
|Written by||Harold Jacob Smith|
|Music by||Ernest Gold|
|Edited by||Frederic Knudtson|
Stanley Kramer Productions
|Distributed by||United Artists|
|Box office||$2.5 million (US and Canadian rentals)|
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.
- Sidney Poitier as Noah Cullen
- Tony Curtis as John “Joker” Jackson
- Theodore Bikel as Sheriff Max Muller
- Charles McGraw as Captain Frank Gibbons
- Lon Chaney Jr. as Big Sam
- King Donovan as Solly
- Claude Akins as Mack
- Lawrence Dobkin as Editor
- Whit Bissell as Lou Gans
- Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as Angus
- Kevin Coughlin as Billy
- Cara Williams as Billy's mother
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.:30, 280–281
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."
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."
|Academy Awards||Best Picture||Stanley Kramer||Nominated|
|Best Actor||Tony Curtis||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
|BAFTA Awards||Best Foreign Actor||Tony Curtis||Nominated|
|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
|Golden Globe Awards||Best Motion Picture – Drama||Won|
|Best Director||Stanley Kramer||Nominated|
|Best Actor – Motion Picture Drama||Tony Curtis||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
|WGA Award||Best Written American Drama||Won|
Remakes, tributes and parodies
The basis of The Defiant Ones was revisited several times in popular media:
- Warner Brothers parodied the film in Friz Freleng's 1961 cartoon D' Fightin' Ones, in which Sylvester the Cat escapes from captivity in a dogcatcher truck while chained to a bulldog.
- In 1972, with gender reversal, as Black Mama, White Mama, starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov.
- Another 1972 B-movie added a science fiction blaxploitation twist as The Thing with Two Heads, in which a racist white man (played by Ray Milland) has his head grafted onto the body of a living black man (played by Rosey Grier).
- In 1984, in the season 1 episode "Some Like It Hot" of the American sitcom Night Court, the movie plot was briefly alluded to by a maintenance man as Dan and Liz (white and black characters, respectively) are handcuffed together, as he says, "Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier...what was the name of that movie?"
- The 1985 sci-fi film Enemy Mine pitted a white earthling against a lizard like alien while stranded on a desolate planet.
- For television in 1986, as The Defiant Ones, starring Robert Urich and Carl Weathers.
- Homage is paid to the film in the 1992 Quantum Leap episode "Unchained". Protagonist Sam Beckett lands in the body of a white Mississippi road gang worker chained to a wrongly convicted black man, and the two must escape together or be murdered by the corrupt warden.
- In the Red Dwarf episode "The Inquisitor", an altered-reality Rimmer says - in reference to Lister and Kryten showing up on the ship chained together- "Look, they come here with some cock-and-bull story, they're chained together like Sidney Poiter and Tony Curtis -- I say open the door to oblivion and kick 'em through!"
- In 1996 action film Fled, the film stars Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin.
- In a Everybody Hates Chris episode, Principal Edwards (Jason Alexander) cites the plot of the film for Chris Rock, and then, he abandons it in a natural history museum in New York City with Joey Caruso (Travis T. Flory) for both practicing the "buddy system".
- Mentioned in season 4 of Archer in episode "Coyote Lovely". After handcuffing Lana and Cyril together Archer says "just like the defiant ones"
- Tino Balio. United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry. University of Wisconsin Press, 1987. p. 143.
- "Vagaries of Overseas Playoff". Variety. May 27, 1959. p. 3. Retrieved June 16, 2019 – via Archive.org.
- Private Screenings: Tony Curtis. Turner Classic Movies, January 19, 1999.
- Server, Lee (2001). Robert Mitchum: "Baby I Don't Care". St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-26206-X.
- . Turner Classic Movies, January 16, 2012.
- Crowther, Bosley. The New York Times, film review, September 25, 1958. Last accessed: February 23, 2011.
- Variety, film review, September 24, 1958. Last accessed: February 23, 2011.
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