I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, USA)

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Melodrama in which Paul Muni plays James Allen, returned from the First World War with a restlessness borne of a desire not to return to the drudgery of his former civilian life in New Jersey and an ambition to use the engineer’s skills he’d learnt in the army. He soon leaves his shipping clerk’s job, but finds work hard to get right across the country. Down on his luck in the South, he teams up with another down-and-outer, thinking he’s getting a free feed at a diner, when his mate pulls a gun and forces Allen to raid the till. Allen gets caught and sentenced to 10 years on the chain gangs.

Surprisingly, since he’s not long out of the army, he finds it difficult to adjust to the discipline and the bad food. He escapes a year into his sentence, fooling baying bloodhounds and local police in his getaway. In no time he makes it to Chicago, where he rises up the ladder in a construction firm, building roads and bridges, becoming an executive and being feted by the Chamber of Commerce. Things all look rosy when he falls in love with a young woman, Helen, but he is betrayed to the police by his profligate wife (did I mention his wife?), whom he was blackmailed into marrying after she discovered his secret past in a letter. His capture generates huge debate, with much public opinion contending that if the objective of prison is to rehabilitate, why send a reformed and productive member of society back to the chain gang? Political tensions between States also grow as Illinois considers not extraditing him back down South.

Ultimately, he agrees to return on the promise that he will be pardoned after just 90 days, but he is unwisely very critical of the brutality of the chain gang system, and it is hardly a surprise when the authorities renege on their promised pardon. Allen seems to have an aversion to singing spirituals and escapes again (this time in a truck), ironically blowing up a bridge to prevent his pursuers from getting too close, and in doing so cruels any chance he has of returning to his former respectable life. We see him briefly a year later, permanently on the run, thieving to stay alive, living in the shadows and unable to pick up again with Helen.

Muni’s portrayal of Allen as an everyman is supposed to lead us to consider his run of bad luck and his awful demise and reflect upon how easily that could be us. I’m not so sure; I don’t think I could ever be a civil engineer. It is a classic film, based on the true story of co-writer Robert Elliott Burns, who was actually pardoned from Georgia chain gangs, and the publicity surrounding Burns’s book and the film apparently led to many of the chain gangs in the South being abolished. Fortunately, from a film goer’s (rather than a correctional administrator’s) perspective – and appreciators of Cool Hand Luke in particular – some survived.  It is also remarkable given that it was made just five years after the first ‘talkie’ movie; it’s just not a brilliant prison movie.

I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang #2 I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang #3

Posted on May 16th, 2009 at 4:15 pm. Updated on March 10th, 2017 at 9:08 pm.

#217 in the Top 500

4 Responses to “I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932, USA)”

  1. April 23rd, 2011 at 12:41 pm
    Pablo says:

    Sorry Eric, your well compiled website is spoiled by rubbish reviews. ‘I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang’ is easily one of the five best prison pictures ever made. And where is the 1956 Robert Bresson classic ‘A Man Escaped’?

  2. April 24th, 2011 at 6:35 pm
    eric says:

    Thanks, Pablo. It’s an important movie, just not a great prison movie in my view. Happy to get your top 5 to consider what you promote it above. As far ‘A Man Escaped’, I don’t do military prisons, which I know excludes some classics. Eric

  3. February 29th, 2012 at 6:26 am
    Steven says:

    This is a great movie, what is wrong with you people, because this movie teaches a man how to survive and to not pick the wrong woman in his life, (I say that the movie is 5 stars) and can I order it

  4. February 29th, 2012 at 8:04 pm
    eric says:

    Can you have a great movie that isn’t a great prison movie? I reckon. You can order it through Mr Amazon, Steven… and plenty of other places as well.

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