The Defiant Ones

This summer, you might have already seen two very different people, chained together, forced to co-operate in order to escape their captivity. They even climbed out of a mud-pit; if you weren’t thinking about The Defiant Ones (about two chain-gang prisoners, one white and one black, in a similar mess) during this scene, you can bet the filmmakers behind Solo probably were. It’s a neat way to fast-track the origin story of Han and Chewbacca’s iconic friendship, using an existing short-hand for unlikely camaraderie, if hampered by the film’s repeated unwillingness to run with some of its more radical implications (are droids slaves? are wookies, for that matter?). Which brings me conveniently to the topic I should be discussing: a film by a director often accused of… unwillingness to run with the radical implications of his narratives.

Robert Mitchum, himself a chain-gang veteran, turned down Tony Curtis’ part because he thought the idea of a black and white prisoner chained together in the segregated South too unbelievable. The film side-steps its own implausibility handily: ‘the warden has a sense of humour’, drawls one cop to another. It’s a throwaway line, but the film works hard to justify it: casual sadism is so pervasive in this quasi-Southern Gothic morality tale that the unseen warden figure is not difficult to picture: you can see shades of him in the police dog handler, who uses bloodhounds to track, but dobermans to kill; in the glee of the duck hunters who believe they have been deputised to hunt a more dangerous game; in the cold lust of the lynch mob, and the warmer but no less fatal passion of a woman prepared to sacrifice one life for the freedom of another.

In a post-McCarthy era Hollywood where studios were resistant to socially liberal themes, Stanley Kramer turned efficiently produced, independently financed ‘message movies’ into culturally significant mainstream hits. But The Defiant Ones occupies a curious place in the middle of that narrative, and the beginning of Kramer’s run of critically acclaimed hits as director. Its unlikely, twisted premise subverts some of the social commentary it might be attempting to impart, and the intractable problem of the sickness and cruelty of its secondary characters, as well as the sexually charged, sometimes violent interactions among them, create an atmosphere reminiscent of the independently produced horror films of the time, or the emerging exploitation genres. After all, Kramer produced the original outlaw biker film, The Wild One, and many exploitation films made similar claims to tackling social problems. Then there’s the more-than-cameo appearance of Universal’s least prestigious or talented monster movie star, the wolf-man himself, Lon Chaney Jr., as a droopy-faced ex-con sympathetic to our protagonists’ plight.

In fact, as Kim Newman points out in the interview bundled with Eureka’s second Kramer re-release of the year, the two plots— one where a black man must convince the white people around him that they must band together to survive, and the other a police-led hunting party stalking the countryside— are reminiscent of Night of the Living Dead. Kramer is partly to blame for it being easy to respect his films as historical mile-markers and difficult to experience them as entertainment, but history has done the rest, perhaps unfairly. The Defiant Ones is, nevertheless, an enjoyably action-oriented buddy movie about two petty criminals, one that refuses to condemn them for whatever crimes they may have committed to land them in their current predicament. History has reduced the film to its simplistic ‘message’, that black and white people can set aside their hatred and work together— what James Baldwin called its ‘profound American misunderstanding of the nature of the hatred between black and white’.

But beyond that, there’s an astute, observational quality to the different ways that Curtis’ Johnny ‘Joker’ Jackson and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) antagonise each other and interact with their surroundings. Cullen was arrested for assault while defending his home from a trespasser; in every situation, he discovers that his blackness is more subject to suspicion and hostility than the fact that he’s lugging around his own manacles. The simplicity of the film’s dramatisation of racial hatred does not cancel out its open-minded curiosity about the material and psychological consequences of living in a racist and classist society whose police force exists to uphold wealth inequality. It would be more exhausting to see Sidney Poitier go through the motions of yet again teaching a co-star (and white audiences) about racism, except Cullen’s own exhaustion at having to do it, at being yet again impeded by the ignorance of a white person, is so evident that it becomes integral to the film’s ‘message’.

Cullen is running for his life, but Joker is hoping to blend in and disappear at the earliest opportunity. He repeatedly attempts to sell out his comrade, most notably when he tells a mob ‘you can’t lynch me, I’m a white man’. Between this and Some Like It Hot, what is it with late ‘50s Tony Curtis playing fugitives whose sense of identity is whipped out from under them? What Joker comes to understand is not only his own privilege, but the limits of it— his solidarity with Cullen is based on the realisation that he will never be ‘Charlie Potatoes’, that his options in American society are almost as limited as Cullen’s, even if he doesn’t have to fear as much for his safety and livelihood. Just like Fleetwood Mac sang, chains keep us together.

It’s difficult to give a good account of what the film does without discussing the ending, which was so central to Baldwin’s criticisms. It is not a surprise, so I hope you won’t mind if I spoil it: as happens to criminals in old Hollywood films, Joker and Cullen are eventually caught. Baldwin sees the affectionate loyalty of Cullen to Joker as a platitudinous reassuring of white America that ‘they have done nothing for which to be hated’. The difference between contemporary white and black audience’s reactions (‘get back on the train you fool’, quotes Baldwin of a Harlem cinema-goer) supports that reading.

But despite the film’s misguided optimism, there’s a splinter of fatalism in every Hollywood film that insists on ultimately punishing its criminal protagonist, and The Defiant Ones might be one of the most crushing, pessimistic examples. I doubt Kramer intended it, but what the film does in its closing moments is manifest the film industry’s, and maybe the audience’s, senseless need to see the criminalised— not criminal— black American man brought low. Brought low not despite but because of his generosity and his camaraderie with a white man. Ultimately it’s Joker’s sympathetic helplessness that so fruitlessly condemns Cullen to share his fate. After all, when Joker earlier rushed to rescue Cullen, he found him in no danger at all, a little bemused. Is The Defiant Ones really about two men learning not to hate each other, or did the director of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner make a film suggesting that the clumsy allyship of well-intentioned white people might be a poisoned chalice?


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