The Defiant Ones
Theatrical release poster
Directed byStanley Kramer
Written byHarold Jacob Smith
Nedrick Young
Produced byStanley Kramer
StarringTony Curtis
Sidney Poitier
Theodore Bikel
Charles McGraw
Lon Chaney
King Donovan
Kevin Coughlin
Cara Williams
CinematographySam Leavitt
Edited byFrederic Knudtson
Music byErnest Gold
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release dates
  • June 29, 1958 (1958-06-29) (Berlin[1])
  • September 24, 1958 (1958-09-24) (New York City, New York)
  • September 27, 1958 (1958-09-27) (United States)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$2.75 million (US and Canadian rentals)[3][4]

The Defiant Ones is a 1958 American drama film which tells the story of two escaped prisoners, one white and one black, who are shackled together and who must co-operate in order to survive. It stars Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

The film was adapted by Harold Jacob Smith from the story by Nedrick Young, originally credited as Nathan E. Douglas. It was produced and directed by Stanley Kramer.

The film was highly regarded at the time of its release; it won Academy Awards for Cinematography (Black-and-White) and Original Screenplay and was nominated for seven others, including Best Picture and Best Actor for both Poitier and Curtis. Poitier won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival.


One night in the late 1950s in the Southern United States, a truck loaded with prisoners swerves to avoid another truck and crashes through a barrier. The rescuers clear up the debris and discover two prisoners have escaped, an African American man shackled to a Caucasian man because "the warden had a sense of humor." They are told not to look too hard as "they will probably kill each other in the first five miles." Nevertheless, a large posse and many bloodhounds are dispatched the next morning to find them. The two missing men are Noah Cullen and John "Joker" Jackson. Despite their mutual hatred, they are forced to cooperate, as they are chained together. At first, their co-operation is motivated by self-preservation, but gradually they begin to respect and like each other.

Cullen and Joker flee through difficult terrain and weather, with a brief stop at a turpentine camp where they attempt to break into a general store, in hopes of obtaining food and tools to break the chain. Instead, they are captured by the inhabitants, who form a lynch mob; they are saved only by the interference of "Big" Sam, a man who is appalled by his neighbors' bloodthirst. Sam persuades the onlookers to lock the convicts up and turn them in the next morning. That night, he secretly releases them, being a former chain-gang prisoner himself.

Finally, they run into a young boy named Billy. They make him take them to his home and his mother, whose husband has abandoned his family. The escapees finally are able to break their chains. When they spend the night there, the lonely woman is attracted to Joker and wants to run off with him. She advises Cullen to go through the swamp to reach the railroad tracks while she and Joker will drive off in her car. However, after Cullen leaves, the woman reveals that she had lied: She has sent Cullen into the dangerous swamp to die to eliminate any chance he would be captured and reveal where Joker had gone. Furious, Joker runs after his friend; as he leaves, Billy shoots him.

Wounded, Joker catches up with Cullen and warns him about the swamp. The posse led by humane sheriff Max Muller gets close. The two hear a train whistle and run toward it. Cullen catches up to the train and jumps aboard. Joker runs alongside, desperately trying to catch up. Cullen calls to Joker and holds out his hand. Their hands clasp, but Cullen is unable to pull Joker aboard. Both men tumble to the ground. Too exhausted to run, they realize all they can do is wait for their pursuers. The sheriff finds Cullen singing defiantly and Joker lying in his arms.


Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in the trailer for the film


Drive-in advertisement from 1958

Robert Mitchum, a veteran of a Southern chain gang, turned down the role of Jackson because he believed black and white people would not be chained together in the segregated South at that time.[5] Mitchum's reasoning was misinterpreted over the years into the claim that he turned down the film because of his refusal to work with a black man.[5] Kramer wrote that Poitier was initially unsure of Curtis' casting but became supportive. Curtis, however, denied this; he stated that he had contractual rights to approve who would play Cullen. However, despite Curtis' many later claims and stories, Kramer had cast Poitier and Marlon Brando as the two leads when a previous contractual obligation prevented Poitier from being able to accept the role. Kramer wanted Poitier for the role so badly that he delayed the film's production, which led to Brando having to decline because the delay caused shooting to overlap with another obligation. Curtis was cast afterwards. Curtis did request Poitier's name appear with his above the movie title marking a first for Poitier in his career.[6][7]

Carl Switzer, of the Our Gang comedies, has a small role. It was his last before his death.


The film earned rentals of $2.5 million in the United States and Canada but did not perform as well overseas.[3] It ultimately made a profit of $1 million.[2]

Critical response

When the film was originally released, Bosley Crowther, film critic for The New York Times, lauded the production and the acting in the film, writing "A remarkably apt and dramatic visualization of a social idea—the idea of men of different races brought together to face misfortune in a bond of brotherhood—is achieved by producer Stanley Kramer in his new film, The Defiant Ones... Between the two principal performers there isn't much room for a choice. Mr. Poitier stands out as the Negro convict and Mr. Curtis is surprisingly good. Both men are intensely dynamic. Mr. Poitier shows a deep and powerful strain of underlying compassion...In the ranks of the pursuers, Theodore Bikel is most impressive as a sheriff with a streak of mercy and justice, which he has to fight to maintain against a brutish state policeman, played by Charles McGraw."[8]

Variety praised the acting and discussed the film's major theme, writing "The theme of The Defiant Ones is that what keeps men apart is their lack of knowledge of one another. With that knowledge comes respect, and with respect comradeship and even love. This thesis is exercised in terms of a colored and a white man, both convicts chained together as they make their break for freedom from a Southern prison gang. The performances by Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are virtually flawless. Poitier captures all of the moody violence of the convict, serving time because he assaulted a white man who had insulted him. It is a cunning, totally intelligent portrayal that rings powerfully true...Curtis delivers a true surprise performance. He starts off as a sneering, brutal character, willing to fight it out to-the-death with his equally stubborn companion. When, in the end, he sacrifices a dash for freedom to save Poitier, by saving him from the swamp, he has managed the transition with such skill that sympathy is completely with him."[9]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds a rating of 91%, based on 58 reviews.[10]

Awards and nominations

Award Category Subject Result
Academy Awards[11] Best Picture Stanley Kramer Nominated
Best Director Nominated
Best Actor Tony Curtis Nominated
Sidney Poitier Nominated
Best Supporting Actor Theodore Bikel Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Cara Williams Nominated
Best Story and Screenplay – Written Directly for the Screen Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith Won
Best Cinematography – Black-and-White Sam Leavitt Won
Best Film Editing Frederic Knudtson Nominated
Bambi Awards Best Actor – International Tony Curtis Nominated
Bodil Awards[12] Best American Film Stanley Kramer Won
Berlin International Film Festival[13] Golden Bear Nominated
Silver Bear Sidney Poitier Won
British Academy Film Awards[14] Best Film of any Source Nominated
Best Foreign Actor Tony Curtis Nominated
Sidney Poitier Won
Directors Guild of America Awards Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Motion Pictures Stanley Kramer Nominated
Edgar Allan Poe Awards Best Motion Picture Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith Won
Golden Globe Awards[15] Best Motion Picture – Drama Won
Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama Tony Curtis Nominated
Sidney Poitier Nominated
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Cara Williams Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture Stanley Kramer Nominated
Golden Reel Awards Best Sound Editing – Feature Film Won
Laurel Awards Top Drama 4th Place
Top Male Dramatic Performance Sidney Poitier Nominated
Top Male Supporting Performance Theodore Bikel 5th Place
Top Cinematography – Black and White Sam Leavitt Won
Top Score Ernest Gold 5th Place
New York Film Critics Circle Awards[16] Best Film Won
Best Director Stanley Kramer Won
Best Screenplay Nedrick Young and Harold Jacob Smith Won
Writers Guild of America Awards[17] Best Written American Drama Won

American Film Institute

Remakes and parodies

The basis of The Defiant Ones was revisited several times in popular media:

See also


  1. ^ Myers, Harold (July 2, 1958). "Political Tensions, No U.S. Stars Mark Opening Of Berlin Film Fest". Variety. p. 2. Retrieved January 21, 2021.
  2. ^ a b Balio, Tino (1987). United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 143. ISBN 978-0299114404.
  3. ^ a b "Vagaries of Overseas Playoff". Variety. May 27, 1959. p. 3. Retrieved June 16, 2019 – via
  4. ^ "Top Grossers of 1958". Variety. January 7, 1959. p. 48. Please note figures are for US and Canada only and are domestic rentals accruing to distributors as opposed to theatre gross
  5. ^ a b Server, Lee (2001). Robert Mitchum: "Baby I Don't Care". St. Martin's Press. p. 280. ISBN 0-312-26206-X.
  6. ^ "The Defiant Ones (1958)". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  7. ^ "Tony Curtis". Private Screenings. January 19, 1999. Turner Classic Movies.
  8. ^ Crowther, Bosley (September 25, 1958). "Screen: A Forceful Social Drama; ' The Defiant Ones' Has Debut at Victoria". The New York Times. Retrieved February 23, 2011.
  9. ^ "The Defiant Ones". Variety. December 31, 1957. Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  10. ^ "The Defiant Ones". Rotten Tomatoes.
  11. ^ "31st Academy Awards". Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  12. ^ "1959". Bodilprisen (in Danish). Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  13. ^ "Prizes & Honours 1958". Berlinale. Archived from the original on October 15, 2013.
  14. ^ "Film in 1959". Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  15. ^ "16th Golden Globe Awards". Golden Globes. Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  16. ^ Crowther, Bosley (January 4, 1959). "THE 'BEST' OF 1958; Critic Selects 'Top Ten' Films and Comments on Group Awards". The New York Times. Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  17. ^ "1959 Awards Winners". Archived from the original on December 5, 2012. Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  18. ^ "AFI's 100 YEARS…100 CHEERS". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 13, 2023.
  19. ^ Davis Jr., Sammy (1989). Why Me?. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 978-0374289973.