johnlink ranks THE DEFIANT ONES (1958)

Everyone has holes in their film seeing world. I haven’t watched anything from Bollywood. I haven’t seen very many musicals. I’ve seen very little of the 30s-40s western genre. All of those I am fine with. But, somehow, I’ve got a big gaping hole in my film knowledge which houses Sidney Poitier. For some reason his films never made it onto my syllabi when I got my film degree, and I just haven’t sought out his stuff. But, now that I have seen THE DEFIANT ONES, that will change.


I watched THE DEFIANT ONES (1958) on 5.4.15. It was my first viewing of the film.

Noah Cullen and Joker Jackson (Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) are a couple of inmates chained together on a bus heading back to prison. The bus over turns and the two of them make a run for it. Chained together, they need each other to survive. Their hatred for each other is clear, their lack of respect a detriment. This is a film made in 1958 about race relations in America and it does not pull any punches. Director Stanley Kramer does not sugar coat anything or hide behind metaphor. These two men are quite literally chained together. They are forced to confront their animosity.

This was not a safe film to make. Elvis Presley originally considered making this a starring vehicle with Sammy Davis Jr., but he was talked out of it. Too controversial. Robert Mitchum – who served on a chain gang in real life – turned the movie down because he thought the premise was too unbelievable. He did not, as was reported by some, have any moral objection to the movie. Instead, he just knew from experience that no white man and black man in the deep south would have been chained together for any reason. The false hierarchy of segregation existed even in prison.

Stanley Kramer, too, wanted Marlon Brando. He thought Tony Curtis might be too ‘pretty’. For better or for worse, though, Kramer ended up with Curtis. It’s hard to be negative about what Brando might have done with the role, but Curtis is just fine. His Joker Jackson has used his looks to get by, it would seem, but he is a man who has no qualms about being a taker. His bigotry is not conscious – he just always used words like ‘boy’ and the n-word because that is what people did back then. When confronted by Cullen, Jackson is almost taken aback by the suggestion that there is anything wrong with the words. He’s a status quo guy and the status has always been quo enough for him.

But this is, no doubt, a Poitier movie. Noah Cullen is a principled man who will not stand for bigotry. He stands up for himself, which his why he is in prison in the first place. He’s not a simple one-dimensional character – he admits that he would have killed the guy he is in for assaulting if he hadn’t been stopped – but he tries to make the right choice. There are interesting moments throughout, especially when a young boy (Kevin Coughlin) gets knocked down and unconscious by Jackson. For his part, Jackson is ready to walk away. But Cullen insists on stopping and helping the boy. When the boy awakens to a black face he immediately hides behind Jackson, using his true assaulter as a shield against a man who tried to help him. It’s a complex, nuanced, and brilliant moment. And Poitier plays it all with dignified quiet.


The lack of music is interesting in the film. Kramer has one guy walking around with a radio. His rock and roll tunes are all diegetic, forcing the cops on the chase to constantly ask him to shut the radio off. But when Jackson and Cullen are involved in their adventures the film is silent other than for its sound effects. The music is most notably absent when the two go careening down a river. Most movies would be full of suspenseful strings. Kramer makes a choice to use no score at all, and it is surprisingly raw and effective.

The movie isn’t particularly predictable. Some of the moments played on the police side of the chase dig in for laughs rather than dramatic effect, and that is ok. The other side of it – Jackson and Cullen on the run – slowly works through a relationship. These men become odd friends, even seemingly when they start punching each other. The true test, of course, won’t come until the chains are off and they must decide where to go from there. What the movie chooses to do with its ending is note perfect. Seeing it end any other way would feel false in terms of being too optimistic or too pessimistic.

THE DEFIANT ONES is a really good film. Really worth seeing, and much more entertaining than you might expect. Absolutely worth seeking out.




FINAL SCORE: 8 out of 10

~ by johnlink00 on May 5, 2015.

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