The film was adapted by Harold Jacob Smith from the story by Nedrick Young, originally credited as Nathan E. Douglas. It was directed by Stanley Kramer.
The film was highly regarded at the time of its release, and won Academy Awards for Cinematography (Black-and-White) and Original Screenplay. Poitier won the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The film starts with a truck driving at night. It swerves to miss another truck and crashes through a barrier. The rescuers clear up the debris and cover the people killed... mainly prisoners in the back. It is revealed that two are missing: a black man shackled to a white 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 setting is in the American South, the men are the black Noah Cullen (Poitier) and the white John "Joker" Jackson (Curtis). Despite their mutual loathing, they are forced to cooperate, as they are chained together. At first their cooperation 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 that holds them together. Instead, however, they are captured by the inhabitants, who form a lynch mob; they are saved only by the interference of "Big" Sam (Chaney), 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, but that night, he secretly releases them, after revealing to them that he is also a former chain-gang prisoner.
Finally, they run into a young boy named Billy. They make him take them to his home and his mother (Williams), whose husband has abandoned his family. The escapees are finally 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 drive off in her car. The men agree to split up. However, after Cullen leaves, the woman reveals that she had lied—she sent Cullen into the dangerous swamp to die to eliminate any chance he would be captured and perhaps reveal where Joker had gone. Furious, Joker runs after his friend; as he leaves, Billy shoots him.
Wounded, Joker catches up to Cullen and warns him about the swamp. As the posse led by humane Sheriff Max Muller (Bikel) gets close, the escapees can hear the dogs hot on their trail. But they also hear a train whistle and run towards the sound. Cullen hops the train and tries to lift Joker on as well, but is unable to drag him aboard. Both men tumble to the ground. Too exhausted to run anymore, 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 as John "Joker" Jackson
Sidney Poitier as Noah Cullen
Theodore Bikel as Sheriff Max Muller
Charles McGraw as Captain Frank Gibbons
Lon Chaney, Jr. as Big Sam
King Donovan as Solly
Claude Akins as Mack
Lawrence Dobkin as Editor
Whit Bissell as Lou Gans
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer as Angus
Kevin Coughlin as Billy
Cara Williams as Billy's mother
Robert Mitchum, a veteran of a Southern chain gang, turned down the role of Jackson because blacks and whites would never be chained together in the segregated South. The story was corrupted into the claim, repeated by Curtis and others, that Mitchum refused to work with a black man. 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 originally 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 he had. 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.
Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, of the Our Gang comedies, has a small role. It was his last before his death.
The film made a profit of $1 million.
When the film was first 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."
Variety magazine likewise 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, he has managed the transition with such skill that sympathy is completely with him."Won
Academy AwardBest Cinematography, Black-and-White
Best Writing, Story and Screenplay—Written Directly for the Screen
Berlin International Film Festival: Silver Bear for Best Actor (Sidney Poitier)
Best Actor in a Leading Role (Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Theodore Bikel)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Cara Williams)
Best Film Editing
Berlin International Film Festival: Golden Bear
The basis of The Defiant Ones was revisited several times in popular media:Warner Brothers parodied the film in Friz Freleng's 1961 cartoon D' Fightin' Ones, in which Sylvester the Cat escapes from captivity in a dogcatcher truck while chained to a bulldog.
In 1972, with gender reversal, as Black Mama, White Mama, starring Pam Grier and Margaret Markov.
Another 1972 B-movie added a science fiction blaxploitation twist as The Thing with Two Heads, in which a racist white man (played by Ray Milland) has his head grafted onto the body of a living black man (played by Rosey Grier).
In 1984, in the season 1 episode "Some Like It Hot" of the American sitcom Night Court, the movie plot was briefly alluded to by a maintenance man as Dan and Liz (white and black characters, respectively) are handcuffed together, as he says, "Tony Curtis, Sidney Poitier...what was the name of that movie?"
For television in 1986, as The Defiant Ones, starring Robert Urich and Carl Weathers.
Homage is paid to the film in the 1992 Quantum Leap episode "Unchained". Protagonist Sam Beckett lands in the body of a white Mississippi road gang worker chained to a wrongly convicted black man, and the two must escape together or be murdered by the corrupt warden.
In 1996 action film Fled, the film stars Laurence Fishburne and Stephen Baldwin.
In a Everybody Hates Chris episode, Principal Edwards (Jason Alexander) cites the plot of the film for Chris Rock, and then, he abandons it in a natural history museum in New York City with Joey Caruso (Travis T. Flory) for both practice the "buddy system".
Mentioned in season 4 of Archer in episode "Coyote Lovely". After handcuffing Lana and Cyril together Archer says "just like the defiant ones"