I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang Director: Mervyn Leroy (1932)
Sergeant James Allen (Paul Muni) returns home from World War I where he quickly falls into the life of a grifter. He struggles to adjust back to civilian life until his mother and brother (who is a minister) secure him his old job at a factory in New Jersey. However, Allen’s true passion is for engineering. He says he longs to work with his hands in construction. He leaves his family and travels around the country from Boston to New Orleans looking for work. He becomes a vagrant as a he travels from city to city. Eventually, he meets a man (presumably in Georgia, though the film never explicitly identifies the state) and the man offers to buy him a hamburger. Upon arrival, this strange man forces Allen to rob the cash register at gun point until the police show up and Allen tries to flee but he is caught. The unknown man is killed in a shootout. James Allen is then imprisoned and sent to work on a notorious chain gang somewhere in the Southern United States, where black Americans are separated from white Americans.
After weeks of harsh labor and brutal beatings, he witnesses a friend complete his sentence and leave the camp. Allen then devises a plan wherein one of the larger black prisoners helps him bend the chains on his legs with his hammer. James then makes a visit to the restroom in the bushes for two minutes and escapes. Allen is chased but not caught and he flees to Chicago where he assumes a new name, reversing his old name to “Allen James,” and he establishes a prominent reputation after years of hard work as an engineering laborer, once his dream job. His landlord falls in love with him and finds out about his secret. Although he does not love her, she blackmails him after discovering his troubled past and they get married. Years later, when Allen falls in love with someone new, she reports him to the authorities and he is offered a plea bargain if he willingly returns to do 90 days of work while they complete his paperwork in good faith. Allen is promised a comfortable desk job, but instead he is returned to an even more dangerous chain gang and his plea bargain is repeatedly refused.
Irate, Allen and a friend, escape the chain gang again by stealing a truck. In the escape, his friend dies, but Allen remains on the lam for than a year before he suddenly reappears one night with his lover. He only visits briefly to say goodbye as he must continually keep moving. When she asks how he will survive, Allen says he will have to steal, and the film fades to black.
This haunting film, based on the true story of Robert Elliott Burns, is an early thriller produced with the intention of exposing the harshness of southern chain gang prisons in the early 20th century. Starring Paul Muni, already famous for his portrayal of Tony in Scarface: The Shame of the Nation which was released during the same year, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was nominated for three Academy Awards.
In truth, this film is unforgettable. Paul Muni gives a tremendous performance as the indictment of Georgia chain gangs is striking. Predictably, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was banned in Georgia and its release was followed by a libel lawsuit from the warden of a Georgia chain gang. Upon its release, Georgia officials actually discovered the whereabouts of the true escapee Robert Elliott Burns and he was arrested, but the governor of New Jersey refused to extradite him to Georgia. Burns had been hired as a technical consultant on the film under the assumed name of “Robert M. Crane” in order to protect his continued anonymity.