The main extra which is included on The Defiant Ones Blu-Ray, new from Eureka, is an interview with regarded film writer Kim Newman, who considers Stanley Kramer, as an important filmmaker rather than a good one. A liberal in the purest form, his movies were often commentaries which deal with social issues in the broadest of terms, often because no one else would dare go near them as explicitly. An independent filmmaker, his lack of studio interference would allow Kramer to make features on his own terms.
While rough around the edges, particularly in comparison to other films around the same time, The Defiant Ones works well not only a simple chase movie but also a commentary on race relations. Sometimes a simple message is the most effective and films like this stay with us for this very reason.
Set in the then-segregated south, the film’s premise is pure and simple. two convicts manage to escape from transit due to a road accident. The cops aren’t too worried about them getting too far as the warden, with his wicked sense of humour as chained a black man with a white man. If the two criminals are looking to get anywhere near escaping, they’re going to have to find a way to work together.
Before the road accident even occurs, the two reprobates are already at each other’s neck, with John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis) already irritated by Noah Cullen’s (Sidney Poitier) chain gang high pitched chain gang song, so much so that Jackson labels him a n*gger. A slur that isn’t utilised as much as one would think in a movie like this but primes the tone for the outer conflict that will soon occur.
Visually competent and brisk with pace, Kramer’s film doesn’t elevate itself too far from what it ultimately is, a slow burn foot chase. He keeps the action gritty and tactile with the two prisoners having to kill will bullfrogs for sustenance, as well as trudge and climb through sludge and rain to make gain some space from their pursuers. The sheer amount of grubbiness and grime the two go through only enhance the roughness of the film-making. Kramer may not have the backing of studios, but such an aspect doesn’t hinder him, the ruggedness he en-stills is what the film needs as well as it’s simplicity.
The film’s uncomplicated nature also allows the film to be a showcase for its two stars. Curtis; who obtained the role over the likes of Robert Mitchum, who allegedly took issue with the film’s premise, strikes the right balance of cocksure and vulnerable in a role that saw him garner an Oscar nomination and helped elevated him to further stardom. Poitier; who Newman mentions in the extras was probably on a casting list of two actors with Harry Belafonte, shows his natural charisma and screen command as Cullen. Also nominated, the role feels somewhat bizarre because it plays against the type of role Poitier is known for.
Kramer used him again in the comedy of manners Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, another film which discusses racial tensions. Despite the obvious differences within the films and the roles, Poitier’s strength in both comes from, his ability to draw complicated feelings of empathy from a character who not only wouldn’t of gained a huge amount at the time the film was made, but from a conflicted character who isn’t the type of noble black character which made him the household name he is today. It’s the small moments of humanity these two criminals find within each other, while never dropping the fact that both men are guilty of their crimes. It would be easy to make The Defiant Ones a cheap ask for redemption, however the film, through Kramer’s writing and the two performances never fall on such an act. It aims for a grounded understanding which still works despite the harsh censorship that limits certain avenues the film could have driven down.
Despite it being 2018, it’s particularly easy to find dunderheaded thoughts on race crop up from our workplaces to our social networks, which is partly why The Defiant Ones still resonates upon a present-day viewing, in spite of its obvious plays. Seeing Kramer operate as a strikingly independent filmmaker who used his filmmaking to create somewhat basic but warming reflections on society is still something worth taking the time to indulge in. This year we’ve seen film audiences bleating that the most recent Star Wars films are being made with more than a straight white male’s view in mind.
Kramer may utilise the obvious visual symbolism of a shackled ebony and ivory hands clinging together to frame his argument of us “all being in this together”. But as simplistic as it may be, The Defiant Ones reminds us that it’s definitely worth remembering.
The Defiant Ones is now available on BluRay from Eureka Entertainment.