Directed by Stanley Kramer, a white prisoner and a black one escape chained together after a road accident and are chased by law officers and a posse with hunting dogs.
During a rainstorm prisoners are being transported in a truck. Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) is singing spirituals, and the officer in front tells him to shut up. He keeps singing, and convict John Jackson (Tony Curtis) tells Noah to shut up also, calling him a “nigger.” Noah says if he calls him that again, he will kill him. They begin to fight. The truck goes off the road and down an embankment. Sheriff Max Muller (Theodore Bikel) looks down at the wreck as other police vehicles arrive. Muller talks to the governor on a phone and says they were side-swiped. A reporter (Lawrence Dobkin) asks Max for the story. Max gives orders for calls to be made. A car unloads men with rifles, and state policeman Captain Frank Gibbons (Charles McGraw) suggests that Max deputize them. Max warns them to be careful with their guns. Lou Gans (Whit Bissell) says they are used to hunting rabbits, but Max says a human is not the same. The reporter says they will help, and Max advises him to get the transfer records on the two men who escaped. An officer reads from a paper about Noah Cullen and John Jackson for the reporter. Max says a white man and black man were chained together because the warden has a sense of humor. He says they will probably kill each other.
Noah and John are running chained together.
A man complains that Max and Gibbons are eating in front of the hunting dogs. Max says they will not need them, and Gibbons advises him to use the dogs. Max orders Solly (King Donovan) to keep his dogs on a leash.
John is hammering the chain with a large rock. He asks Noah to take a turn, and he chants, “No more, yassir, boss.” He gives up and says they need a chisel and a hammer. John says they should go south, but Noah says they should go north around the swamp. He says they could catch a train. John asks how he knows that train runs. John tries to pull Noah with him, and Noah laughs and sits down. They quarrel and start to fight. Noah says the time will come, and they could fight now. He says they go north, or they will be caught. John says the time will come. Noah points to the north.
Gibbons gives orders to the posse and says they have to carry their gear because it could take days. About a dozen or more men walk while one drives a jeep.
John and Noah are trying to cross a rapid stream by going from rock to rock. Noah gets carried down stream along with John. Noah runs into a branch, and John helps him out of the stream. Noah thanks him, but John says he kept him from pulling him in.
Solly says his dogs need a rest, and Max changes his mind and approves the rest.
In a swamp John and Noah attack an animal. They cook it on a fire and eat it. They talk about animals in the swamp and whether they make noise or not. John hands Noah the rest of his cigarette, and Noah thanks him. John objects to hearing that word and tells how he used to get tips by saying “Thank you.” Noah tells him not to call him “boy.” John says he has a lot to learn. Noah says John lives in a fancy hotel and asks if they would let him in there. John admits he is a honky and does not mind being called that. Noah complains about the names and calls John a “white man.”
Later they are sleeping in the rain. John wakes up and suggests they move on. Noah goes with him. They walk down a dirt road and jump in a pool as a wagon with horses goes by. They try to climb out of the hole, but the water and mud make it difficult, and they fall back. John suggests they try again. They climb and fall again. John asks to try it on Noah’s shoulders. After Noah gets a hold, John climbs over him and stands on his shoulders. They hold on to roots. John reaches a post on top and helps pull Noah up. Noah says that John’s hand is infected and needs fixing. John resists at first but then puts out his hand. Noah puts mud on it, and John petulantly says thanks. Noah says he has been saying that all his life. John gets them going again.
The men and dogs are trying to cross the stream. Max on the phone says they are heading north. Solly tells Max he will not let his dogs cross the river. Max consults with Gibbons who makes a recommendation. He says the two have a twelve-hour start, and they are going to lose two more hours.
At night John and Noah look at houses from a hill. Noah suggests they hunker down until it is later. They sit against barrels and talk. Noah says he worked 36 acres with his wife and son. John says everybody ends up alone. John says he has not seen his father since he was fourteen. Noah says his old man was a “Bible-thumper.” John liked driving and going to a gin mill. He worked fixing cars. John says he is a taker, and he got into jail by stealing. Noah committed assault and battery. A man pulled a gun on him, and he took it away. John asks why Noah is getting mad, and he says he has been mad all his life. They are waiting for the people there to go to sleep. Noah wishes he could get away someplace where people are not so afraid. They see the last man finish using the outhouse. Noah picks up mud and has John put it on his face so that his face will not shine.
They sneak around the houses. A dog barks in the distance. They cross a bridge and hear a crow. They run up to a building by gas pumps and look in the dark windows. They climb up on the roof and use their chain to pry open a trap door. They climb down. John is hanging from a shelf and falls, caught by the chain. Noah tells him to grab the chain, and he does. Noah jumps down to the floor, making much noise. Dogs are barking. They see people looking in with flashlights. The door is locked, and they jump through a window and run away. They knock one man down and then are surrounded.
Max and the reporter are drinking coffee. Gibbons gives Max a casualty report and suggests they request help. Max says no. Gibbons says he is civil service and does not have to worry about his job. Max tells the reporter he has a wife and kids and gets good pay, but he can go back to practicing law. The reporter says he was never much of a lawyer. Max says he hates those two men.
People in the town have gathered around a fire, and Mack (Claude Akins) throws a rope over a beam. He tells a minister to get rid of the women and children, and they go to a prayer meeting. Mack asks which of the two did it, and Big Sam (Lon Chaney Jr.) says the man has not come to but will be all right. Mack says they will hang. John says he cannot do that. Mack says no one will know who pulled the rope. John says there could be a reward. Mack says they pay dead or alive. John says he is a white man, and Mack orders Noah to spit on John. Noah refuses, and Mack slaps him. Then Noah spits on Mack. Big Sam has been objecting to Mack and forces him to give way. He asks the other men if they want a lynching. He asks men to tie the noose around their necks or chop them up with an ax or burn them with a torch, but they all refuse except Mack who takes the torch. Big Sam knocks him out. A man comes in and says Joe is all right after getting six stitches. Big Sam says they will lock them up and tells the rest to go to bed. They leave.
In the morning Noah and John are tied to a post standing up, and Noah is singing. John says he was crazy because they might beat them to death. Noah asks if John has ever seen a lynching, and he says he has. Noah says he can tell them he is a white man. Big Sam comes in and cuts them loose. John notices a scar on Sam’s wrist. Sam opens the door and waves them on. Noah asks for a crowbar, and Sam declines. He says to say they escaped on their own. They run off.
Max and the others are walking behind the dogs.
Noah and John run down a hill, and John lays down to rest. He asks how far they ran. John says Noah is a runner and that they got away. John blames him for spitting at the man, and they quarrel. John slaps Noah, and they fight, John using his right hand and Noah his left. They roll down the hill, and John chokes Noah. They wrestle. A boy with a rifle tells them to put up their hands and has them stand up next to him. Noah knocks down the gun and the boy. John says they should go, but Noah says he bumped the boy’s head. The boy comes to and hides behind John who says he will not be hurt. Noah asks where he lives, and he indicates the direction. They find out he lives only with his ma. The boy asks if John is taking him to jail. The boy’s name is Billy (Kevin Coughlin).
They walk to his house and meet Billy’s mother (Cara Williams). John says they only want something to eat and go in the house. She comes in and fixes a plate of food for John who tells her to get some for Noah too. She offers John coffee and looks at him as she pours it for both. She asks where they are from. John likes a picture, and she says she painted it by the numbers. Noah asks where the kid is, and she says he will be back. John tells her about the Mardi Gras. He mentions good-looking women, and she gives him a cigarette. She asks if they are coming after him. She says they could catch a train tomorrow at one. Billy comes in with a hammer and chisel, and John and Noah jump up and start working themselves free. Noah frees John, and he quickly frees Noah who grabs the rifle. John collapses, and Noah say he is sick from poison in his system.
Max is questioning people in the town. A woman says they sent the women away. Big Sam says they caught them, and they broke out and got away. Max asks who came and got them. Max asks if they lynched them and says he better tell them because the dogs will find them. Solly says his dogs are too tired to go on. The men say they are tired too. Max orders them all to move out. He tells Gibbons to call in more men and to get the men moving.
John is asleep on a bed with his wrist wrapped. The mother puts a wet rag on his forehead. Noah is asleep with his head on a table. She takes the rifle and sees Billy is sleeping in bed. She puts the rife down and sits by John who wakes up. He finds out he has been asleep a couple hours. She says they have time because it is two o’clock. He suggests she get some sleep. He remembers when someone else stayed up all night taking care of him in a prison hospital. He asks what happened to her husband, and she says he ran off. He asks if she gets lonesome. She feels empty inside, and he advises her not to fill it up with tears. He fills it up with dreams. She does not know much. He says to make up pictures in your head. He would like to have a boat so he could go to new places. He imagines tall buildings made of glass with someone waiting who is clean, warm, and nice. She asks if the person is prettier than she is. He says his dreams are mixed up with the real thing. She says she is not going away. She lets down her hair, and he puts his hand on the back of her head and says, “Don’t go away.”
In the morning John wakes and puts on his shoes. He picks up the rifle and sees Noah and Billy are sleeping. He goes out and sees the mother washing at the pump. He washes his face, chest, and hands. She says she made him breakfast. She gives him a clean shirt. He says her husband must have been crazy. He says he is bound for Rio. She asks if he likes her, and she asks him to take her with him. He says that will not work. She says she has a car. He opens the barn and tells her to try the car. The car is old, and he gets the crank that gets it going. He says he has to get Noah, and she says they will recognize them. She says he and she could travel as man and wife. They could drop off her kid at her relatives. He tells her to get packed but then sees Noah who says the shirt is nice. Noah turns off the car to save gas. John says traveling together they will be easily caught. He has the same chance or better alone. She goes to fix something to eat. Noah says John has it figured out.
Inside Noah asks her how far the river is, and she says twelve miles by the mountain. She fixes sandwiches. She says it is shorter through the swamp which will make it harder for the dogs. He could head for the railroad. He takes a bag of sandwiches and thanks her. John and Noah say goodbye, and Noah leaves. John puts the rifle down. He kisses her although she said, “Not now.” She sees Billy and asks if he likes him. He says he does. John says she has to talk to the kid. She says they won’t catch Noah because he will die in the swamp. John asks why she did that. She says he might tell them about them. John is angry, and she says she has $400 from insurance. They could start a new life. He says she does not even know him. She pleads and says they don’t have time. He goes to leave, and she stops him and begs, crying. He pushes her away, and Billy shoots him with the rifle. He runs out and away.
Gibbons is questioning Billy’s mother, and Max tells him not to waste any more time. Max tells her they are going back in jail.
John is running and calling to Cullen. He comes to Noah who asks what he wants. John says the woman guided her wrong. Noah notices the wound, and John says the kid shot him. Noah tells him to come on, and John says he cannot make it. Noah says he is dragging on the chain even though they are free of it, and they wade through the swamp.
Dogs lead the way for the police. Gibbons has Solly bring up the Dobermans. Max says no killer dogs. Gibbons says they crossed the county line, and Max no longer has jurisdiction. Max pulls his gun and orders Solly not to release the Dobermans. Gibbons says he does not like it, but Max leads the way.
Noah and John hear a train and see a bridge. The climb up as the train is crossing and run to jump on a car. Noah gets on and reaches his hand out to John who says he cannot make it. Finally they let go and both tumble down the bank. Noah crawls over to John and holds him in front of him. Noah asks if he is okay, and John says he feels fine. John says he will make somebody a fine old lady. They hear the dogs. John says they gave them a run for it and laughs. Noah says they did all right. He starts singing a chain-gang song.
Max is walking with a pistol and comes up to them. Noah keeps singing, and Max puts his gun away. They smile at each other.
This prison-escape drama reflects the current era of civil rights challenges to the racial prejudice against African Americans. Being tied together with a common purpose they are able to overcome their hostility as they get to know and depend on each other. By the end each has sacrificed his own chance for escape by staying to help the other.