I can’t have made this up myself, but The Defiant Ones is a testament to the pithy axiom that proximity breeds empathy. Stanley Kramer has very clear intent when he builds the premise of his story out of a white and black prisoner, in the era of Jim Crow, who are chained together for the majority of the movie.
He’s not squeamish about hammering us over the head with the implications. These two men, who escape from a prison truck must work together in order to survive and evade the hordes of police dogs and trackers on their tails (led by Theodore Bikel and Charles McGraw). In fact, the push and pull between Bikel and McGraw in their carriage of justice is a mirror for our primary leads, a persistent reminder that these are four men separated mostly by circumstances.
At times, these circumstances all feel perilously didactic, but Noah (Sidney Poitier) and Joker (Tony Curtis) are the movie’s saving grace as it should be. What’s most phenomenal about Poitier and Curtis’s performances as they take on the harrowing terrain of the movie is just how taxing it seems, and there’s a definite physicality to their plight that fully manifests on the screen.
It’s torrents of rapids or getting trapped in a mud pit together and struggling to fight their ways up the sides These moments overwhelm us and at times feel excruciating. But they bring us into each moment and make them feel real and palpable even when the perfectly orchestrated set-up fails to do so. This is the underlying tension of the entire movie.
Although the two men could care less for one another, if not for self-preservation, there are momentary hints of altruism the farther they go along the trail together. They go through the wringer, nearly getting hung after making a desperate attempt to score some provisions in a local settlement after dark. Claude Akins is one of the warmongers with retribution on his mind. Again, Lon Chaney Jr. plays his counterpoint and a man with a timid reservoir of mercy.
In another prolonged interlude, after having survived, they sneak away to a rural homestead run by a widowed mother (Cara Williams). She at one time becomes their captive and then nursemaid, providing care and sustenance to a wounded Joker while only mildly tolerating Noah. It’s here in a formative moment where their physical chains are finally cast off, only for the bonds of camaraderie to cement between them. The once tenuous partnership has progressed toward something verging on mutual respect.
Even as the woman schemes to run off with her new man while leading Noah astray, Joker for the first time in his life fights against the color line. Because complicity is so easy. But his indignant conscience rumbles inside of him, and he goes after his friend to warn him of the hazards that lie ahead.
One of the most galling sequences occurs earlier in the picture when Noah recounts how he was always taught as a young man to “Be Nice” and then his wife went and taught his son the same thing. Of course, “Be Nice” feels like the coded language of deeply entrenched oppression with blacks having to play up to whites just for the sake of survival if not a seat at the social table.
What it engenders in Noah is deep-suited anger for all his natural life. It’s the kind of gall, Joker can’t quite understand. But when he follows Noah toward the Swamp, he’s showing incremental change can be a powerful thing in itself.
One could argue the ending shows how far the film was willing to go. In other words, The Defiant Ones could only go so far. James Baldwin talks in The Devil Finds Work (If my memory holds) about how Poitier’s character does the valiant thing in the end for the white man (while black audiences screamed at him to get away on the train car).
Obviously, if he did not sacrifice for his newfound friend it would sully the film’s theme while further complicating the resolution. The white world was not quite ready for that ambiguity even as black audiences clamored for greater freedom in life and on the screen.
But if I’ve learned anything about Stanley Kramer, his films very rarely aspire to social realism as much as they are parables under the guise of docudrama. Their purpose is clear and their messages unabashed. Years later we look at the Defiant Ones or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and we desire more out of them. Even Sidney Poitier as an actor was often admonished for never quite going far enough when it came to portrayals of his people. There was always something at fault.
Still, when I look at this picture, I see Kramer’s intentions and remember I am so quick to dismiss the past from my enlightened present. Because it’s so easy to do.
However, it feels apt to end with Poitier’s own words about his director:
“Stanley was always a forerunner of terribly good things; He was the type of man who found it essential to put on the line the things that were important to him. People have short memories: in the days he started making films about important social issues, there were powerful Hollywood columnists who could break careers. He knew this, and he said to himself, ‘What the hell’, either I do it or I can’t live with myself.’ For that attitude, we’re all in Stanley Kramer’s debt. He’s an example of the very best of a certain type of filmmaker.”
Kramer’s not one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, but perhaps as Poitier suggests he’s the best of a certain type of filmmaker. Surely that is enough.