Wednesday, October 28, 2009
The Defiant Ones (1958)
By Eric Jessen 10/28/09
Just two years after The Searchers was released, Stanley Kramer, Hollywood's most socially conscious director released The Defiant Ones. As much as it feels weird to see these two titles in the same sentence, they make for an interesting comparison. Considering The Searchers in the most narrow way possible, you could say both of these movies are about race. The Defiant Ones is about race in the most simplistic way: two prisoners chained together, one white and one black, escape their not-so-armored bus -- forced to hitch their way through Lynchdale and Hickville in an attempt to reach the railroads to freedom. Other than the race topic, the two movies are almost completely different. Unlike The Searchers, The Defiant Ones was nominated for numerous Academy awards including Best Picture. On the other hand, it has nearly been forgotten since.
With The Defiant Ones, and most Kramer movies (Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), every inch of frame, every actor and actress looks just a little too slick, too stagy. Watching Tony Curtis pretending to be the racist, “Joker,” I almost broke out laughing: his Hollywood liberalism bursting out his seams, oozing out his smirk. I couldn't help but think Tony Curtis was simply too much of a pretty boy to play a racist. With The Defiant Ones, Curtis, Kramer and company's intentions are too apparent.
The Searchers is a more believable portrayal of race because there will aways be part of me that wonders whether John Ford and John Wayne thought they were making just another western. In The Defiant Ones, it's black vs white – pretty simple. But in The Searchers Ethan (white) is pitted against the common foe of westerns -- Indians. As opposed to Curtis' “Joker,” Wayne's Ethan is a much more believable racist because there will always be part of me that wonders if Ethan's prejudices are Wayne's. Doesn't Wayne seem like the type who might think like Ethan?
The essential difference between The Searchers and The Defiant Ones, and The Searchers and many other mainstream Hollywood movies is that with The Searchers, for many of my questions there is not one clear answer.