I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)
“Six sticks of dynamite that blasted his way to freedom… and awoke America’s conscience!”
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Cast: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson
Synopsis: Wrongly convicted James Allen serves in the intolerable conditions of a southern chain gang, which later comes back to haunt him.
Mervyn LeRoy’s powerful drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a prime example of Warner Brothers policy of using contemporary newspaper headlines to inspire hard-hitting (and commercially lucrative) films filled with social commentary. LeRoy’s film was based on Robert Elliott Burns’ autobiographical novel in which he told of his escape from a chain gang in Georgia to which he was unjustly sentenced, and was released while Burns was still on the run from the authorities. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang went some way both to ultimately earning Burns a pardon and abolishing the chain gangs.
Paul Muni plays Burns’ alter ego James Allen, a war veteran who is dismayed to discover upon his return home from the war that his family expects him to slip right back into the mundane routine of his former life and job. After unsuccessfully attempting to resume his previous life, Allen decides to follow his dream of finding work as an engineer in the construction industry. Times are hard, however, and despite travelling across the country, he’s only able to find a few day’s work at a time. In a flop house, Allen makes friends with another drifter (Preston Foster), who suggests scrounging a burger at a nearby diner, but when they get there he forces Allen to participate in a hold up of the diner. Allen panics when the police gun the other guy down. He tries to flee the scene, but is quickly apprehended, and finds himself up before a judge who sentences him to 10 years hard labour.
Allen is shocked by the inhumane treatment handed out to the prisoners. Each man has his ankles chained permanently together with a length of chain exactly 13 links long so that, when they are finally released they habitually shuffle along as if still chained. This theme of continuing imprisonment beyond the confines of the prison is elaborated upon when Allen finally manages to escape and make his way to freedom. Although he builds a new life for himself and becomes a successful civil engineer, the spectre of prison continues to haunt him, especially when the young landlady with whom he has had an affair blackmails him into marrying her after learning he is on the run.
When Allen falls in love with another woman, his wife finally tells the cops and a lengthy legal battle ensues, ending only when Allen agrees to a verbal promise from the parole board that he will be pardoned after 90 days in an easy clerical role. However, once he is back in the hands of the prison guards, he finds himself subjected to even harsher treatment than before…
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang remains surprisingly powerful, even today. Given a typically breakneck pace following Allen’s decision to abandon his previous lifestyle, the film couldn’t have failed to strike a chord with many men who returned from fighting in the Great War to find themselves ignored by their government. One scene, in which Allen attempts to sell his war medal only to find the pawn shop owner already has a collection of twenty or more similar medals, must have particularly hit home, although it has lost some of its power today.
Given its subject matter, it would have been easy for the story to have succumbed to sensationalism or to have become preachy, but I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang manages to avoid these pitfalls, telling its story in a straightforward and refreshingly unsentimental manner (the prominence of Allen’s sweet, grey-haired mother in early scenes caused a few alarm bells to ring, but thankfully she is swiftly dropped from the story). Muni is often criticised for over-acting, but he gives a convincingly measured performance here which, while a little melodramatic by todays stands, is impressive for its time.
The film apparently sticks fairly closely to Burns’ version of events until his second escape attempt, for which it’s clear Warner’s felt a little action was required. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really ring true, with Allen and his fellow escapee lobbing dynamite at their pursuers as they make their escape in a dumper truck. Allen finally makes good his escape by blowing up a bridge, a scene overladen with both irony and symbolism. Fortunately, this flaw in judgment is redeemed by a truly haunting final scene that will stay with you for a long time after the final credits roll.
(Reviewed 6th December 2012)