I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang
achieves greater illuminating into the inhumanities of the corrupt penal system by sidestepping the easy moralizing to be had from the issue and delivering its many blows via pure dramatic grizzle. James Allen (Paul Muni) is a traveling veteran out of work during the depression. Lured by the offer of a free hamburger, he is tricked and forced at gunpoint into aiding a would-be criminal; when the cops show up at the scene, he bears the blame for the crime, and receives the incredibly harsh sentence of ten years hard labor on a chain gang. While the location is never stated outright but heavily implied (and outright confirmed when the film was banned there for many years after its release), the chain gang system so commonly employed in Georgia is the main villain of the film, although greed and vengeance from other small players ultimately play into the many obstacles James encounters. After over a year of excruciating time served, he manages to escape with his life, ultimately taking refuge in Chicago where, under a new name, he rises to become a prominent architect heralded by the city. When the Georgia authorities finally track him down, he agrees to return to serve a much-shortened sentence so as to clear his name and move on with his life, only to learn that his promised pardon is to be delayed indefinitely so as to exact vengeance for the embarrassment he brought upon the state. While the story itself is quite harrowing, guided in large part by the soul-searing performance by Paul Muni, the lingering focus on the inhuman treatment of the gang members – from the endless lines of chains to the beating of members who suffer fatigue on the job – is perhaps the film’s most directly affecting aspect. That the film, based on the true story of Robert E. Burns, aided in raising public awareness of the chain gang practices so much as to outlaw them is something of a reprieve to its utterly bleak conclusion, where the destructiveness of the state ultimately makes a criminal out of the honest man they so ruthlessly castigated. James, continuously on the run or in hiding, finds his once-to-be fiancé so as to impart a final farewell. At the sound of approaching sirens, he shrinks back into the shadows, and when asked how he will survive, states with equal parts delirium and spiritual defeat: “I steal!