Southern Movie 43: “The Defiant Ones” (1958)
Released in 1958, during the early years of the Civil Rights movement, The Defiant Ones was a daring foray into the nuances of race relations and white supremacy in the South. The film came out the year after the Little Rock Nine controversy in Arkansas and two years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, and it presented a scenario that would have been uncomfortable to many Southerners: two escaped convicts, one white, one black, chained together, running like hell, and learning to cooperate. They are pursued by a posse of locals led by a dour, cynical sheriff and an overzealous state police officer who duel and bicker over control. Filmed in black-and-white and employing little spectacle, The Defiant Ones is spare and lean in its portrayal of two unlikely anti-heroes and their misadventures.
The film opens with Noah’s raucous singing. A transport truck carrying prisoners is driving through the rain at night, and Noah (Sidney Poitier) is among the group, which is comprised of both white and black men. He is the only one who is not silent, and after a few moments, one of the men up front yells at him to shut up. Yet he continues howling a loose, a cappella version of “Long Gone (from Bowling Green).” Soon, one of the prisoners, Joker (Tony Curtis), who is white, calls Noah the n-word and tells him to shut up as well. The two are chained together, and when Noah objects to the epithet, they start to tussle. About that time, another truck comes down the winding road toward the prisoner transport, and swerving to avoid a collision, the transport crashes and rolls down the hillside. Noah and Joker are now chained together and on the run!
In the next scene, we see a variety of law enforcement officers standing around trying to get their work set up. The grouchy sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) is reminded that this is a delicate situation and that it is an election year. The sheriff shouts at nearby state police captain Frank Gibbons to call once again to check on their help and resources, but then a small posse of yokels shows up, among them a goofball with a blaring portable radio around his neck. The sheriff asks what good they will be, and one man says that they’ve hunted plenty of rabbits and that men and rabbits are basically the same thing. The sheriff is calmly disgusted and advises them that, if they truly want to help, they’ll put down their guns.
After a quick appraisal of who the inmates are and what their crimes were, the question is asked, why are a black man and a white man chained together? “I guess the warden’s got a sense of humor,” Max says. No one laughs, then he adds that they ‘ve been advised not to bother chasing them. “They’ll probably kill each other before they go five miles.”
In the gray light of morning, Noah and Joker are running frantically through the woods. Back at the police’s site, men are drinking coffee while the trucks are towed back on the road. The dog man has brought his bloodhounds and Dobermans to track the men, and Muller tells him that the dogs have to stay on a leash.
When our view shifts back to Joker and Noah, they are trying to break the chains with a rock. First, Joker smashes at the chain while proclaiming that he wants a new suit and a girl on his arm, then handing it to Noah, he takes his turn while bitterly grumbling that there will be “No more yassuh.” The chain doesn’t budge though, and they must decide what to do next. Joker wants to go south, but Noah objects, saying that he won’t go that direction. No, it must be north or nothing. Noah says that he knows a train that passes by about sixty miles north on the edge of the swamp, it carries turpentine to a paint factory in Ohio. Refusing to abide this plan, Joker tries to drag Noah in the direction he prefers, and Noah laughs. The tension between the two men rises from Joker’s indignant anger met by Noah’s resolute cynicism. When Joker realizes that he cannot budge the man, they go Noah’s way.
At this point in The Defiant Ones, it is vague about where exactly the story is taking place. The movie was filmed in California, so the landscape is rural but not Southern. The prisoner transport truck has no writing or logo on its doors. Noah mentions working in a turpentine camps and being south of Ohio. IMDb lists Mississippi as one of its keywords, probably because later in the film, Joker tells a story about parking cars in Natchez. It’s only safe to say that this is playing out in the South, though there is no solid indication of where.
When the buffoonish crew finally gets moving tracking the two escapees, they must first listen to a military-style lecture from the gravelly voiced Capt. Gibbons, as Sheriff Max shakes his head in snarky dismay. Meanwhile, Joker and Noah are crossing a rushing river with Noah going first. But Noah slips, Joker is unable to hold on, and they are swept away by the current. Down the way, they find a tree branch and fish themselves out. Despite their mutual situation, when Noah tells Joker thank you for pulling him out, Joker replies harshly, “I didn’t pull you out. I kept you from pulling me in.”
After a brief scene where Max and Gibbons spar over how hard they can push the men and the dogs during the pursuit, we are back again with Noah and Joker. It is night, and they are roasting and eating a big, fat bullfrog. In the quiet, they talk to pass the time, first about nature and its predators, and we learn that Noah has a good sense of the animals’ behavior. Yet, the tone changes when Joker offers him a drag of a cigarette, and Noah says, “Thanks.” Joker tells him again to stop saying that. Noah asks why, and Joker tells him a story about parking cars at a fancy hotel in Natchez, Mississippi where he had to say thank you constantly. Noah doesn’t see the point in the anecdote, but gets tense himself when Joker continues to call him “boy.” Joker doesn’t see the harm in it, or in any racial slur. The two men then debate their positions in society: Joker reminds Noah that could only get in the back door of that fancy hotel with a bucket and a mop, and Noah reminds Joker that he only got in the front door long enough to collect his tip.
The rain then kicks in, and the two men are sleeping cuddled together like children. They wake suddenly, are embarrassed, and get moving quickly. They reach a dig site and are startled by a man rushing past in horse-drawn cart, which causes them to leap into a clay pit that looks to be twenty feet deep. Since they’re chained, Joker and Noah must work together to get out, and it takes a few tries. Once they’re out, Noah realizes that Joker has injured his hand and wrist. Joker is of course resistant to being helped, but Noah tries to show him what compassion he can.
Back among the posse with their dogs, now in the daylight, they’ve reached the rushing river that the two escapees crossed earlier. Max is on the phone, nonchalantly giving orders to cancel the road blocks and to tell his wife that he’ll be out a bit longer. The dog man gives Max another piece of his mind, telling him that he cares more about the dogs “than any old escaped convicts,” then Max has to go consult with Gibbons again. Of course, Gibbons wants to seek military support, but Max sees no point in it. Gibbons tries to argue, but Max tersely explains that he has the authority in the situation.
The next tribulation for the escapees is a little turpentine camp. They have already navigated Man versus Nature and Man versus Man, and now it is time for Man versus Society. After two days of running, they are hungry and tired, but want more than anything to be separated. Realizing that they can’t waltz into town and ask for help, Joker and Noah settle in and wait for everyone to be asleep, so they can break into the company store and get some tools and food.
While they wait, Joker and Noah have another heart-to-heart. Noah mentions that he had a thirty-six acre farm and a wife and son, but had to work it with “hands tools and a mule.” Joker explains how he never could ahead, not even working a job as a car mechanic in Mobile. He’d get paid and spend it all on Friday night on some woman, then be back it at on Monday. He went to prison for being a small-time thief, he says, really for not being a big-time thief so brazen that it didn’t matter. (This is a class-conscious jab at the wealthy.) Noah, it turns out, went to prison for assaulting the man who came to collect a mortgage note that he couldn’t pay. His wife had always told him to “be nice,” even when he was being cheated, but “I’ve been mad all my natural-born life,” he tells Joker.
After the last light is out, they scamper down the hill and into the silent camp. They devise a scheme to get into the store, which has barred windows, from the roof, but of course, it doesn’t go well. They crash to the floor and make a mess, which wakes the town! They try to run for it and hit one man on their way, but they are easily caught and cornered in an alleyway.
Now, they are to be lynched. One of the townspeople, Mack (Claude Akins), throws a rope over a beam and instructs another man to take the women and children away. One woman asks what’s going on, and he replies, “Just an old-fashioned prayer meetin’.” Mack finds this funny but no one else seems to, so he proceeds to interrogate the convicts. Neither Joker nor Noah budge, which makes Mack angry. Big Sam (Lon Chaney) enters the scene, and says their friend will be okay but hasn’t woken up. Mack pushes harder for a confession, and Joker tries to talk his way out of it, first noting that they can’t legally lynch escaped convicts, then that there’s usually a reward for escaped convicts, and finally by saying, “You can’t lynch me . . . I’m white.” Noah gives him a look, and Mack insults his white-ness by telling Noah to spit on him. Noah silently refuses, then spits on Mack, who punches him.
Yet, the tide turns when Big Sam steps in. He grabs Mack and throws him to the ground. He begins then push the other men in the crowd to act, but we can see that his urging is ironic, that he knows that they don’t have the courage or the desire to do this to another human being. He offers one a rope, another an axe, then finally he offers fire to Mack, who takes it and moves toward Joker and Noah. But Big Sam grabs him and knocks him to the ground. In the silence of men’s shame, Big Sam orders the men to tie up Joker and Noah in the barn so he can carry them to the law in the morning. They all disperse.
Joker and Noah are tied to a post back-to-back, and Noah is once again singing “Long Gone.” He believes that it’s over, they both do, and rightly so. Noah suggests to Joker that being dead is better than going back to a chain gang for another twenty years, but Joker disagrees. He admits to Noah that he has seen a lynching and knows how they work, which was the reason for his fear. But what they don’t know is that Big Sam will be their saving grace. As they fuss with each other, Sam comes in and unties them, allowing them to leave. They wonder why at first, but the scars on his wrists show them that he was once a lynching victim as well. On their way out the door, Noah asks for his crowbar, but Sam tells him not to push his luck.
After once again seeing the exhausted posse trying to find our anti-heroes, the focus returns to the fleeing escapees. They share a cigarette, but the tension returns when Joker tells Noah that he should have gotten what he deserved after spitting in a white man’s face. Noah then returns the jab by telling Joker that he is nothing but a “monkey on a stick,” that he hasn’t enough spine to stand up for himself. This exchange leads to the fist fight we’ve seen coming, and they eventually tumble down the hill and into some cane brush where each man tries to use their chain to strangle the other. But their fight is interrupted by a boy’s voice, telling them to cut it out.
When they look up, a young boy named Billy is pointing a rifle at them. He instructs them to get up and come over to him. They do walk over, scared and confused, but they quickly use the chain to knock the boy’s gun out of his hand, though he hits head on a rock on the way to the ground. Here, we see the intricacies of a racialized culture. Joker says to leave him there but Noah stays to help, lifting Billy, checking his head, and waking him up. But the boy starts at being held so closely by a black man, and jumps up to seek protection from Joker, who just wanted to leave him there hurt. As Noah questionsBilly about his home, his father, and what he is doing out there, the boy is hesitant to answer and only does so when Joker says it’s okay to. The boy then asks Joker, “Are you taking him to jail?” to which Joker replies, “Something like that.”
At Billy’s house, his mother lets in the two escapees and they calmly demand food. Of course, she fixes Joker a plate directly, but has to be told to fix one for Noah, too. She has an obvious attraction to Joker, and they begin to get to know each other, as Noah looks skeptically at them. The woman has a picture of Mardi Gras in New Orleans on her wall, and Joker tells her that Mardi Gras isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. She then offers him to stay the night, an offer he meets with silent coldness, and then she tells them both about a train that passes by every afternoon about 1:00, a bit of information that gets Noah’s attention. About that time, Billy comes in with a hammer and chisel. The two escapes jump up like their chairs are on fire, and they proceed to take off the chains. When their brief work is done, there is a mixture of relief at having them removed, and a visible recognition that there fortunes are no longer tied. Quickly, Noah jumps up and grabs the gun, pointing it at the woman and child, but his nervous effort is stopped when Joker passes out and falls on the hearth, reeling from the sickness caused by his injury.
On the other front, the search patrol has reached the turpentine camp, where Big Sam is explaining away their disappearance. He claims that they broke out, but Max remarks that he sees marks on the outside of the door, meaning that someone broke in. He then tells Sam that, if they lynched the two, he’d better fess up, since the dogs will find their corpses. But Sam isn’t worried and shrugs him off. Frustrated now, and tired, Max tries to get his crew moving despite their protests, and he orders Gibbons to bring in reinforcements to wall-in the two convicts. Max’s buddy says, “You know, that’s the first time I’ve seen him smile.”
The next ten minutes of The Defiant Ones shifts gears and develops a sentimental and romantic connection between Joker, who is lying shirtless in the bed, and the nameless woman who has taken them in. She describes an awful and lonely life: her husband is gone, and she and her son have nothing. When Joker awakes, the house is quiet. Noah is sleeping with his head on the kitchen table, and the boy is in his bed. (It is implied that Joker and the woman slept together.) He finds her outside pumping water, then she tells him that she wants him to be her new man— and they can leave in her car. Astounded by the revelation that there is a car, Joker sprints to the barn and gets it cranked. They will run away together, she tells him, and start fresh after dropping off her son with relatives. However, Joker wants to know what will happen to Noah— she doesn’t care, she tells him callously, and a hesitant Joker agrees. Then they realize that Noah is standing there. He understands what is happening and suggests slyly that he’ll be “the bait.” The tension is severe, and the woman goes inside to fix them something to eat.
As the story comes to a close, the woman makes Noah some sandwiches and gives him directions to get to the train through the swamp. He appears suspicious but she tells him that it’s the most direct way and that dogs won’t be able to track him there. He leaves without much fanfare, and the woman begins to pack herself and her son to leave with Joker. However, she makes a remark about Noah during their conversation that catches Joker’s ear: he won’t make it anyway. Joker asks what she means, then presses her, only to find out that she has sent Noah into a place where he’ll certainly drown or sink into quicksand. She has done this to ensure that he isn’t caught, and can’t tell on them, which will give them time to get away. Joker is furious at what she has done, but the woman pleads with him tearfully that this is their only chance. She has $400 saved, she tells him, and lists all of the wonderful things they can do in a big city. But Joker is having none of it. He tells her as he leaves that she doesn’t even know his name or anything else about him. She tries one more tearful plea, but Joker leaves. However, as he does, the boy Billy has the rifle and shoots Joker.
Joker runs and soon catches up to Noah in the swamp. Meanwhile, the posse has arrived at the woman’s house and tries to get information out of her. She coyly resists, while Joker and Noah continue their scramble in the swamp. As the posse closes in, the two men see the railroad bridge and make a dash for it. Noah makes the jump onto a flatcar, but Joker is too weak and can’t. Noah reaches out his black hand, and Joker reaches out with his bandaged white hand. For a moment, they clasp but Joker’s slips away. Then we see them both tumble from the train and tracks down a hill. We realize that Noah must’ve jumped to be with his friend. Finally, as Max walks up on them, Noah is holding Joker in his arms, as they wax philosophic then begin to chuckle at their bad luck. Joker, who has said the whole time that he wants to “Charlie Potatoes,” says that he is now “mashed potatoes.” To end the film, Noah is once again singing “Long Gone,” as Max holsters his pistol, recognizing that they’re not a threat at all.
David Roediger, a historian and scholar on issues of race and class, wrote of the film: “This blockbuster liberal ‘race film’ was as noteworthy for its striking successes as for its lamentable limitations. [ . . .] The Defiant Ones also is regarded by some film historians as one of the first ‘crossover’ successes, a work tailored to attracting both a black audience and a white one.” The Defiant Ones is not a very Southern film— it is, I agree, a ‘race film’ instead. Though Noah and Joker have depth, the portrayals of the lawmen, the posse, and people who commit the near-lynching are set up as types, like chess pieces to be moved around the board until a check-mate is achieved.
Certainly, some truths about mid-century Southern culture and racism and their effects can be garnered from the portrayals, but where the film takes us relates more to an idea of Harold Bloom’s: a hero’s journey is defined not so much by success as by having learned something from having undertaken it. At the end of The Defiant Ones, the anti-heroes Joker and Noah are captured and will go back to prison, but they’ll go back having learned that race need not separate them. And that outcome may have been Southern-enough for audiences in 1958 to think about, as they witnessed the burgeoning movement for racial equality that was erupting below the Mason-Dixon Line.