I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang Movie Review
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Starring: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Preston Foster, Allen Jenkins, Berton Churchill, Edward Ellis, Sally Blane, Louise Carter, Hale Hamilton, David Landau
Oscar Wins: No wins.
Other Nominations: Best Actor (Paul Muni), Best Sound Recording, Best Picture
War changes people. It expands horizons, causes cultures to collide. For those returning from World War I, the small towns they left suddenly felt somehow smaller. But for returning soldier James Allen, life now held immense possibility.
At least, that’s how I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang starts. Based on the harrowing account of real-life fugitive, Robert E. Burns, IAAFFACG tells the story of James Allen (Paul Muni), a man who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and payed dearly for it.
After his service in World War I, Allen returns home to boring civilian life. His old job as a desk clerk is still available to him, but he’s not interested in going back. In a speech that almost had me standing up and applauding, Allen tells his mother and brother that he’s changed and wants to start a new life – in a word, to be free. He goes on… “And again I find myself under orders in a drab routine. Mechanically, worse than the army. And you, all of you, doing your best to map out my future. To harness me, to lead me around, to do what you think is best for me. It doesn’t occur to you that I’ve grown! And I’ve learned that life is more important than a medal on my chest or a stupid insignificant job.”
So, Allen sets out to make something of himself. He travels from state to state looking for a job but comes up empty-handed. In one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the film, Allen goes into a pawn shop to sell his war metals for money. The clerk laughs at him and shows him a box filled with metals from soldiers who tried to do the same thing. That scene hit hard, right in the feels. Desperate for food and money, Allen accidentally becomes caught up in a robbery and is sentenced to 10 years on a brutal southern chain gang.
Not surprising, life on the chain gang is horrible. Prisoners are forced to work 15-hour days in the hot Georgia sun. They’re smacked and beaten for not knowing the routine or wiping their brows without the permission of the guards. They’re fed grease and slop and are hit and tortured if they even so much as faint from exhaustion.
After hearing from a fellow prisoner that the only two ways out of the chain gang are to walk out (after time served) or to die, Allen decides to make a run for it. He succeeds in escaping, finally settling in Chicago where he changes his name and becomes extremely successful in the construction business. However, he soon finds himself back on the line after his bitch-ass wife turns him into the authorities.
Nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor (Paul Muni), IAAFFACG held real substance and meaning not often seen in movies from this time period. It is considered one of the strongest social protest films of the Depression era and was a bit of an expose for audiences into the inhuman conditions of prison chain gangs.
Personally, I was completely fascinated by this film from beginning to end. Similar to current films like Spotlight (2015) or Loving (2016), IAAFFACG did something not many films are able to do anymore: it got audiences talking. It inspired reform. It helped abolish the prison chain gang. It even helped Robert Burns earn the freedom he so desperately wanted.
With a message that still holds a firey power even today, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is not unlike a war wound or handcuff scar – it itches, it burns, it makes you feel uncomfortable. Yet maybe that’s the message we need to follow Allen’s example: to pursue knowledge and freedom, no matter the cost.