PG | 1 h 36 min | Drama | 1958
Courts in early 20th-century America used chain-gang prison labor to help build state roads, highways, bridges, and railroads. This phenomenon, of largely black prisoners pounding rock and shoveling dirt while chained to each other, died out with the Great Depression, although some southern states used these gangs until the mid-20th century.
Stanley Kramer’s film, set in the 1950s, imagines the fates of two escapees, black Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) and white John “Joker” Jackson (Tony Curtis), who have little to distinguish them except their color and nothing to unite them except their chain. They find a way to escape, but because they mutually despise each other, Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) figures that “they’ll probably kill each other before they go five miles.”
Collaborating merely for survival, they half-run, half-stagger through towns looking for food, shelter, and a tool that’ll cut them free from each other, if not from the reach of Muller’s posse. When a breathless Cullen thanks Joker for rescuing him from roiling river rapids, Joker snaps, “I didn’t pull you out, I kept you from pulling me in!” When they’re nearly killed by a racist mob, “Big” Sam (Lon Chaney Jr.) rescues them; although white, he was once in a chain gang himself.
Amid their bickering, Cullen and Joker develop a grudging mutual regard. Cullen reluctantly agrees with Noah: They’re better off hopping on a northbound train than taking their chances in the racially charged South.
Briefly, little Billy (Kevin Coughlin) and his single mother (Cara Williams), both white, end up hosting the duo in a deserted farmhouse. Lonely, and conspiring to drive off with Joker whom she fancies, the mother coaxes Cullen to make a run for it. As they part, the men must contend with each other’s obvious capacity for cruelty and less obvious capacity for compassion.
Their physicality and their grueling flight from the law allow the men’s character arcs to develop spontaneously. You see them rage against wild fields, swamps, and hunting dogs. You see them rage in a giant mud pit, beneath a rainstorm, a riveting three-minute sequence with barely any dialogue. But as the fatigue of fighting and fleeing drains them, they see themselves and each other with fresh eyes. That insight signifies a death to their warring selves, a resurrection to their new selves, now better, if not fully, reconciled.
Running From RacismPoitier saluted Kramer’s bold take on racism when he told Kramer’s biographer: “There were powerful Hollywood columnists who could break careers. He knew this, and he said to himself ... 'either I do it or I can’t live with myself.' For that attitude, we’re all in ... Kramer’s debt, ... an example of the very best of a certain type of filmmaker.” Then the bigger star, Curtis ensured that Poitier got top billing alongside him. Both were nominated but lost the Best Actor Oscar—they were so excellent on screen that they split the vote.
The film’s images are among the most stirring from that era. In one, a white man’s hand helpfully reaches down to grasp that of a black man; in another, that positioning is tellingly reversed. Equality, Kramer's saying, is stillborn without justice, and justice is stillborn without brotherhood. Kramer’s point is that ignorance about another race or group triggers fear, and excessive fear triggers contempt.
When he first stumbles upon the pair he’s never met, Billy blacks out in a scuffle. When he comes to, he rushes to Joker’s side, assuming that danger can come only from a black man and that defense against such danger can come only from a white man. “Big” Sam’s empathy seems to come from the common ground he finds with the two escapees. He was once in a chain gang, and can’t bear to see either of them killed or recaptured.
But Kramer is saying that finding common ground isn’t an end in itself. In fact, it may be nothing more than a starting point. He asks: Can someone’s fate matter for its own sake, not only because it’s chained to our own? Cullen and Joker show that it can.