Saturday, February 11, 2012

Film Review: The Defiant Ones (1958)

One-sheet movie poster
The Defiant Ones film poster.
Photo Courtesy of
     TCMDb: Two convicts, a white racist and an angry black man, escape while chained together. 

     This, by all means, is not an easy film to watch, or at least it wasn't for me. It was, however, easy for it to become one of my favorite films ever.
     Having been born in the much later part of the twentieth century, '94 to be precise, I've never known what it was like to live in a time that the white people felt such hatred toward African Americans; when racism festered like an ugly sore that only grew until it poisoned the whole body and soul.
     That is just what this film is all about.
     Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are two convicts, chained together, who escape, when the vehicle holding them and several other groups of convicts chained together overturn, together. Tony's character, the Joker, is a racist, and Sidney's character, Noah Cullen, has been angry all his life.

     Law Officer: How come they chained a white man to a black?
     Sheriff Max Muller: The Warden's got a sense of humor.

     Two men. One black. One white. Each trying to secure the freedom that has been denied to them. Connected not only by the chains that clasps them together by the wrists, but also by their inability to accept the other as who they are. At least . . . that's how it is in the beginning, but when freedom is so close, just grazing their fingertips, and all they have to do is reach out a little further and grab it, a bond forms. Not one that is wanted by either, but nonetheless, it is there; it grows. And the festering sore that poisoned their bodies, begins to be smoothed with a balm that is more powerful than aloe could ever dream of being: Acceptance.
     They are tested from the very beginning. When they first escape, Joker and Cullen argue about which direction they should go in. Cullen knows that he won't make it in the south, and convinces Joker to cut through the swamp, and then jump a train to Ohio.
     Second, when they try to break into a small town's local general for food, Joker hurts his wrist severely and they are caputred by the town's citizens; they plan to lynch them the next day. They are able to escape that night, however, when a local citizen, Big Sam (Lon Chaney, Jr.), also a convict, sets them free.
Running through the swamp, chained together,
the train's whistle's cutting through the air.
Photo Courtesy of
     Third, the next day after they've escaped (again), they are surprised when a young boy named Billy holds a shotgun on them, but they're able to overcome him, and the boy takes them back to his farm. The boy's mother takes them in, and they are finally able to free themselves from the chains, and put food in their stomachs. The woman is attracted to Joker, and that night as Cullen sleeps and she tends to the Joker's injury, she tells him how lonely she is, her husband having left eight months previous, and they make love.
     The woman wants to escape in her car with the Joker. At first, Joker is reluctant to abandon Cullen, but decides in the end agrees to the plan. The woman advises Cullen to take the shortcut through the swamp to the railroad tracks, but after he leaves, she admits that the swamp is impenetrable bog and quicksand. Furious at his own inadvertant betrayal of Cullen, Joker starts to go after Cullen. The boy shoots Joker in the shoulder, and when Joker finally locates Cullen in the swamp, he protests that he is too weak to go on. Cullen and Joker, hearing the train whistle, stumble up the hill as the train crosses a trestle. Cullen leaps on, but cannot hold onto Joker, and both men tumble to the ground. Cradling Joker's head against his chest, Cullen muses, "We gave 'em a hell of a run for it, didn't we?" Then, as the man that's been after them the whole time walks toward them, Cullen sings his blues anthem, "Long Gone," and then laughs.
     So, while they didn't make it to Ohio, but once again caught, they were, however, able to escape from their soul-consuming hatred toward the other and learn to accept, respect and, obvious to the ending, love the other.

     All in all, this is a fabulous film, and one that I'd suggest to all. I give this film a 4/4 star rating. Also, if you'd like to see the film, it's showing on TCM February 17 at 2:30 EST. Watch it!


Reel Popcorn Junkie said...

There's so much to enjoy about this film. Poitier and Curtis are excellent. Theodore Bikel shines as the weary sheriff who has to find them. Claude Atkins, who most folks probably remember from television's The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, is a standout as a man who wants to lynch the fugitives. Too bad it's taken me this many years to see this fine film.

danyulengelke said...

Great review!

We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

Keep up the good work!