The Defiant Ones Review

Released in 1958, The Defiant Ones is important in cinema history as one of the films that helped break down racial tensions that were starting to escalate. Starring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier (arguably the most important black actor of the last century), the film won two Oscars and still regarded as a seminal and influential piece of work, and even caused remakes and rehashes such as Fled.

Two convicts escape after their prison transport derails on route to jail. Chained together by the wrists, the two men are at different ends of the racial spectrum. 'Joker' Jackson (played unusually straight by Tony Curtis, who would later camp it up in such memorable classics as Some Like It Hot and Paris When It Sizzles) is a white man charged with stealing who has aspirations of leading a more charmed life. Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) is a black man charged with assault and battery, who longs to return to his family and escape the tyranny of his white masters. Pursued by the honest and yet determined Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel), who himself is under pressure by Captain Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw), the two men are initially at odds with each other over their skin colour. Soon however, the pair quickly learn to accept that friendship and teamwork are the only qualities that matter, and have to overcome their prejudices in order to survive on the run.

Directed by Stanley Kramer, a man who earned himself a respectable career with such efforts as Judgement At Nuremberg, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Defiant Ones is utterly simplistic in its dealings with racism and yet coolly hits its targets. The film throws in a basic concept of having a black and white convict chained together in order to suit its Huckleberry Finn-esque racial study, and thankfully both of the men seem equal apart from colour. On occasions, the film is too bogged down with the machinations of the actual police hunt, and would have been better had it steered clear of the manhunt on concentrated solely on Jackson and Cullen's gradual friendship. Having said that, Theodore Bikel is very good as the likeable Sheriff Muller, determined to maintain the escaped cons human dignity even if his Captain Gibbons won't allow it. Curtis and Poitier effectively cancel each other out in terms of acting praise, as they both give as good as they get from each other, and were rightly both nominated for Best Actor at that year's Academy Awards ceremony. Curtis is snarling and minimalist as Jackson, whilst Poitier flaunts an outgoing and cynical persona in Cullen, and the contrast between the two is expertly heightened by the director Kramer.

Visually, The Defiant Ones is very impressive in the form of Sam Leavitt's stunning Oscar winning black-and-white cinematography. Leavitt incorporates a gritty, dirt-filled grey colour that combats effectively with some stunning natural Californian locales. Indeed, the director Kramer uses the locations as some sort of odyssey stage, in which the two escaped convicts must travel along in order to reach racial enlightenment.

Although the screenplay received an Oscar (probably more because of its theme and not its structural storyline), the film in hindsight doesn't actually achieve as much as it thinks it does in terms of depicting racial equality. Although Jackson and Cullen despise each other's skin colour and the connotations that are associated with it at the beginning, and learn to care and respect one another as the film develops, one has to ask the question of whether any deep routed prejudices have actually been freed from their minds. Yes, the two have overcome racial dislike amongst themselves, but have Cullen and Jackson's minds actually been changed totally with regards to their views on the opposite race on the whole? This is the film's main problem, in that it so rigidly ties the issue of race with Jackson and Cullen that it prevents itself from dealing with the issue on any sort of wider context.

Despite these misgivings, The Defiant Ones tries desperately to tackle the problematic issue of racial hatred in America, and deserves high credit for its efforts. The film is an enjoyable escape movie and a very passable racial one, and features two famous lead roles and excellent cinematography. It could have achieved much, much more in terms of generating racial awareness, but it still is a winning film that practices the right principles.

Academy Awards 1958
Best Black And White Cinematography - Sam Leavitt
Best Original Screenplay - Harold Jacob Smith, Nedrick Young

Academy Award Nominations 1958
Best Picture
Best Director - Stanley Kramer
Best Actor -Sidney Poitier
Best Actor - Tony Curtis
Best Supporting Actor - Theodore Bikel
Best Supporting Actress - Cara Williams
Best Film Editing - Frederic Knudtson

Presented in 1.66:1 widescreen, the image is understandably non-anamorphic and exhibits fine black and white tones with sharp imagery. Some noticeable edge enhancement is apparent, but this hardly detracts from the proceedings. Overall, the picture quality is fine and mostly lacking in grain.

Presented in the original mono, the sound track is often full of hiss and occasionally dialogue is hard to understand, but on the whole the sound track is generally acceptable and complements the film well, even if it possesses an uninspired dynamic audio range.

Menu: A silent static menu featuring a few promotional images from the film.

Packaging: The usual MGM release, with a transparent amaray housing an inlay with chapter listings printed on its reverse.


Original Theatrical Trailer: An acceptable 1958 trailer for the film, presented in its original grainy version of a few scenes pasted together with text narration advertising the film.


A respectable if ultimately simplistic attempt at combating racial hatred, The Defiant Ones is presented on a typically bare-bones release from MGM that fans will buy and neutrals will ignore. Perhaps one day the film will receive the Special Edition treatment, but until that day, this film-only version will have to do.

7 out of 10
6 out of 10
5 out of 10
1 out of 10


out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 17:58:43

Did you enjoy the article above? If so please help us by sharing it to your social networks with the buttons below...


Latest Articles