Review: The Defiant Ones
Blu-ray & DVD: The Defiant Ones (1958)
I have tried, in vain, to find some contemporary reactions or reviews for The Defiant Ones, but so far I haven’t come across anything, as I’m quite intrigued by the sanitised ‘anti-racism’ story of this film.
We see a small argument between 2 prisoners being transported in a truck, Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis) who is white, and Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) who is black. Joker calls Cullen the ‘N’ word, which even in 2018 is jarring, though it is the only mention of that word, or indeed any racial slur (with the exception of ‘Boy’). The truck they are in crashes through a barrier and the 2 men escape, the crux of this story being that a black man is shackled to a white man, because ‘the warden had a sense of humour’.
Despite their mutual hatred, the men are forced to co-operate, as they are chained at the wrists. At first their co-operation is motivated by self-preservation but gradually, they begin to tolerate each other.
This is a very sanitised, almost ‘Hollywood’ tale of how BAD racism is. On being cornered by a village lynch mob, they are saved only by the interference of Big Sam (Lon Chaney looking very old and haggard), a man who is appalled by his neighbours’ readiness to hang both men, who he allows to escape, as it appears he was also on a chain-gang years ago.
This is a very liberal film and not terribly hard hitting by 2018 standards. It seems Curtis’ character isn’t a racist at all, he just hates everyone, and the fact that Noah is black doesn’t make much difference either way. It’s only with the fleeting introduction of the lynch mob and later when they take refuge with a lonely abandoned wife that the central theme pops its head up.
However, I can only imagine the impact this would have had as far back as 1958. Rosa Parks sat at the front of the bus in 1955, and the black people of America had to wait another nine years for the rise of Malcolm X. So, for its time, and its abject liberalism, this really IS a bit of an amazing film. A black actor getting equal billing with a white one, both on the film poster and a story revolving around tolerance.
Poitier of course is a truly magnificent actor ( The Heat of the Night – Let’s forget ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner’), but amazingly Curtis actually tried and nearly succeeded in losing his Bronx accent for a southern Belle. Ah but then I do love Tony, he’s in 5 of my favourite films (Spartacus, The Vikings, Some Like It Hot, Sweet Smell of Success & Taras Bulba), so… phew.
Extras include Kim Newman (who I normally like) being quite smug and a bit up his own arse about the film.
- 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray, with a progressive encode on the DVD
- Uncompressed LPCM audio (on the Blu-ray)
- Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
- A new video interview with critic and author Kim Newman
- Original theatrical trailer
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