Cult Movie: Race-based jailbreak drama The Defiant Ones still packs a serious punch
THE Defiant Ones may be 60 years old but it still packs a serious punch as both a slice of heavyweight social commentary and a rollicking good drama.
Freshly released on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment the 1958 classic is a tense and sweaty tale of two very different convicts – one a cynical white bigot and the other a black man with a serious chip on his shoulder – who find themselves bound together on a Southern chain gang.
When their prison truck crashes in a storm the two men, John 'Joker' Jackson (Tony Curtis) and Noah Cullen (Sydney Poitier), make their escape with their wrists still connected by an apparently unbreakable chain. As they're pursued across the country by the decent Sherriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) and a posse of bloodthirsty individuals, the two men must put aside their mutual loathing for each other and learn to work together.
On surface level that might suggest this is a worthy story of racial tolerance. In one sense it is but it's also a hugely entertaining blend of action and drama that deservedly picked up nine Academy Awards on its first release.
It's also a timely reminder of how great a director Stanley Kramer was and how perfect Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis were in the lead roles of Noah Cullen and John 'Joker' Jackson.
In much the same way he dealt with race in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, Kramer tackles the subject head on and doesn't shy away from core issues. Poitier and Curtis spark off each other, relentlessly sketching much more than the mere racist stereotypes and clichés you might expect.
As a pure slice of suspense the film also works its own magic, relating its tale across three clear sections. Firstly there's that escape where Cullen and Jackson must come to terms with their predicament and find some way to work together to survive. That's where Curtis and Poitier really shine. Much more than just another 'white man learns to respect his black brother' plotline, this sees the damaged cynic, Jackson, soften his views on life and the wronged victim, Poitier, come to terms with the fact that he's guilty as well. It's deep stuff and both stars carry their complex roles brilliantly.
Part two sees our unlikely duo arrive at a little village where they run into a lynch mob and receive help from an unlikely source. Finally they find shelter with a single mother and her son and must learn to trust each other when those shackles are finally removed. Through all this the constant thread of the approaching law who are in hot pursuit is never far from the surface.
As a study into racial tolerance it was a groundbreaking piece of art in its time.
It's much more than that, though. It's a film about friendship, prejudice and human nature and simply a hugely entertaining drama. It's also one of the most important films of the postwar period. Essential viewing, in other words.