I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). 93 minutes. Directed by Mervyn LeRoy. Starring Paul Muni (as James Allen), Glenda Farrell (as Marie), Helen Vinson (as Helen), Preston Foster (as Pete), and Allen Jenkins (as Barney Sykes). Based on the memoir by Robert Elliott Burns.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is notable for being an early Hollywood social commentary film. Based on the memoir by Robert Elliott Burns, it tells the story of Burns (called James Allen in the movie), who after serving in World War One returns home to the United States with the dream of becoming a civil engineer but ends up doing hard time in a forced labor camp. The subject of forced labor had appeared in theaters previously in, among other things, a popular Disney short starring Mickey Mouse (“The Chain Gang,” 1930), and the 1932 movie based on Burns’s life was soon parodied in a short musical comedy (“20,000 Cheers for the Chain Gang,” 1933). I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was topical at a time when chain gang labor was widespread in the American South, but it is still relevant today as an ethical exploration of how society should treat its prisoners.

While traveling around the country in search of work, aspiring civil engineer James Allen falls on hard times. One night he befriends a man who says he knows where to procure a free meal for the two of them, but the man ends up robbing the proprietor of a lunch wagon instead and forcing Allen at gunpoint to take money from the till. Allen is apprehended by police and sentenced to ten years of hard labor on a Georgia chain gang. Life on the chain gang is miserable, and soon Allen is plotting a way out.

He manages to escape with the help of a fellow prisoner and makes his way to Chicago, where he eventually becomes a successful civil engineer through hard work and study. Allen begins a relationship with a young woman, Marie, who finds out that he is a prison escapee and threatens to turn him in unless he marries her. He reluctantly does but later falls in love with Helen, a society girl. He asks Marie for a divorce, but she refuses; shortly thereafter he is seized by police in relation to his escape from jail. A Chicago lawyer works out a deal for Allen, in which Allen will return to Georgia and serve 90 days as a clerk before being pardoned. Allen travels back to Georgia, where he is immediately put back on a chain gang. When 90 days have passed, he is told that he may be pardoned after one additional year of hard labor; after serving in the camp for a year, however, Allen learns that his parole has been denied indefinitely, and he begins plotting another escape. He manages to steal a truck one day, removes his chains, and makes his way out of Georgia. The final scene shows him surprising Helen at night in a parking lot; he tells her that he is on the run and will never be able to see her again. In the film’s final shot, he steps into the shadows. “How do you live?” Helen calls out. “I steal,” he replies.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang reproduces the reality of chain-gang life in careful detail. There are many close-ups indicating how the prisoners are chained: to bed, to the work truck, to themselves, and to each other. Being chained to the flatbed of the moving truck in particular seems dangerous, but that is the least of their worries. The sufferings of the men at work are varied: they spend hours in the sun breaking piles of rocks; they are not allowed to wipe the sweat from their brows without permission; a prisoner with stomach pains dies in agony; underperforming workers are lashed; the food is abnormal and disgusting; and the “baths” at the end of each day consist of merely a quick scrub of the face and arms. Up at 4:30 in the morning, back for dinner late at night, Allen immediately finds that the cycle of chain-gang work is monotonous, excruciating, and endless. We see little of what holds the men together, apart from the brief relationships that Allen forms with fellow inmates Barney and Pete and the choral singing of the black workers in one of the labor scenes—with the result that, as we witness the oppressive day-in/day-out work, we long for escape just as Allen does.

The back-breaking labor makes the men’s sentences physically unbearable. Elsewhere the movie also stresses the dehumanizing effects of crime and punishment, but in a more psychological fashion. In particular, it shows characters repeatedly counting things and being counted—a sort of cold, numerical erosion of their identities and diminishing of their humanity. For example, Allen’s companion pointedly counts the money in the till during the hold-up scene and erupts in anger when he finds how little is there; a prison employee explains that chains are fitted to inmates with a precise number of links; prison guards loudly count the men coming back to the camp each night while dramatically pulling on their chains; and prisoners use chalk to tabulate the days, months, weeks, and years they have left before they are paroled. Of course, it would be unfair not to acknowledge that counting the time left to serve with a piece of chalk is a hopeful act, and numbers in this sense are positive signifiers of when prisoners will be free—but when Allen comes back to the labor camp in the second half of the film, for him those numbers prove unreliable. He agrees to return based on a deal that itself is rooted in a quantity (the 90-day reduced sentence) but the quantity, as it turns out, is a lie. In the world of the chain gang, even the promise of rationality and linearity inherent in counting is elusive.

When Allen manages to escape from the world of the chain gang the first time, we might expect him to celebrate. In public and in private, however, he must always be on his guard, even in spite of his eventual success in business. Every stray look has the potential to be his undoing. Fresh out of the camp the first time, he narrowly evades police on a train, in a barbershop, and on the street. His affair with Marie proves most treacherous: she says she will turn him in unless he marries her, and later when he is caught by the police, we suspect it is because she, who in theory should be his closest confidante, is unhappy with him and has told them everything. He looks so polished and poised in his suits as a civil engineer, and he is a determined and shrewd worker, but the memory of the striped and sweat-drenched chain-gang uniform is never far away. At the end of the movie, as Allen steps out of and slips back into the shadows, we wonder, given the constant terror he experiences on the lam, if his freedom is really freedom at all.

This movie and Robert Elliott Burns’s book were catalysts in the abolition of chain gangs from the Southern United States where they were widely used at the time. This change, however, did not come about easily. As the movie demonstrates, part of what Allen struggles with after his escape is the fact that bringing negative publicity to Georgia compounds his problem. The Georgia officials are maddened by Allen’s escape but seem especially angry that their system has been exposed and criticized, and their determination to track down and punish Allen in retaliation is significant and impressive. The cool way that the officials lie and connive in legal sessions to persuade Allen to return to the South reminds us that the physical treatment that Allen is subjected to in the labor camp is not the only way that the system can dehumanize its captives. It is therefore not surprising that to prevent more embarrassment than was necessary, the filmmakers removed any reference to the state in which the story takes place from the movie’s title, even though it was a part of the published memoir’s.

Although the southern state’s pursuit of Allen is frightening, it is not depicted as cartoonish or unbelievable. The same can be said of Allen and his fellow inmates. Allen’s colleagues in the labor camp are certainly not all as innocent as he is. We hear stray details about the other men’s deeds and must accept that many of the men have committed awful crimes. But the movie asks us fundamentally how we would like to treat people regardless of how they have treated others, an ethical dilemma that is both timeless and crucial. Specifically, it asks if the chain gang is an acceptable form of punishment for anyone, despite how we might benefit as a society from the chain gang’s labor. The fact that the movie takes a side on this issue is not a weakness, and the way that it argues for the cruelty of the labor camp is done largely by showing us the conditions of the camps—not through dramatic speeches or reflections—which results in a sophisticated and rich presentation that is opinionated but subtle and very effective.

The wonderful Paul Muni plays Allen. I cannot adequately describe what I feel when I watch Muni on screen, but I will try: I feel as if I am watching life itself, but mingled with a deliberate creative act, so that what I watch has all of the spontaneity of life but is more pointed and purposeful than day-to-day existence. His performance can be very subtle. Consider a lighter scene where Allen sits in a car with Helen, with whom he is infatuated. Allen is talking to Helen, but he looks straight ahead, he looks to the side, he gives a little shrug of his shoulders—he is doing all of the little things that we do when we are nervous and do not want to look straight at the person we are talking to. I have rarely seen anyone as understated or effective as Muni on film. I heartily recommend Scarface (1932) as another terrific example of his art.