Having returned from fighting in World War I, James Allen doesn't want to settle into a humdrum life and decides to set off to find his fortune. He travels the length and breadth of America, working as a skilled tradesman in the construction industry. When times get tough however, he finds himself living in a shelter where an acquaintance suggests they go out for a hamburger. What the friend really has in mind is to rob the diner and Allen soon finds himself working on a chain gang with a long jail sentence. Allen manages to escape however and heads to Chicago where over several years he slowly but surely works his way up the ladder to become one of the most respected construction engineers in the city. His past catches up with him and despite protestations from civic leaders and his many friends in Chicago, he finds himself again on the chain gang. Escaping for a second time, he accepts that to survive, he must lead a life of crime.Written by
Warners'-highest paid director, Roy Del Ruth, was assigned to direct, but the contract director refused the assignment. In a lengthy memo to supervising producer Hal B. Wallis, Del Ruth explained his decision: "This subject is terribly heavy and morbid . . . there is not one moment of relief anywhere." Del Ruth further argued that the story "lacks box-office appeal," and that offering a depressing story to the public seemed ill-timed, given the harsh reality of the Great Depression outside the walls of the local neighborhood cinema. See more »
Hale Hamilton listed as "Rev. Allen" in opening credits, addressed as "Clint" by Jim Allen at breakfast, signs his letter as "Clint," but is introduced to the pardon committee as "Robert." See more »
St. Louis Blues
Music by W.C. Handy
Played as background music at Barney's place See more »
Brilliant and ahead of its time
I have an interesting point of view for you--I'm actually in favor of bringing back prison chain gangs/work camps (while at the same time being in favor of legalizing all consensual "crimes"), yet I think that I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a simply brilliant film. I mention my unusual view on corrections/institutional punishment to stress that one need not completely agree with the film's surface ideology to think that the film is a masterpiece. And that's as it should be. Films should be appreciated or not as artworks, not adopted or rejected as symbols of political or other views, as if films are campaigning for office and you are wearing a button.
Still, this is a "social conscience" film and important as such. The story was adapted from the autobiography of Robert E. Burns, who ended up on a chain gang in Georgia after he stole less than $6 so that he could eat. Burns has been changed to James Allen (Paul Muni) and the chain gang was relocated in Louisiana (interestingly, Georgia officials still became incensed at Warner Brothers and issued what amounted to threats against studio executives and the artists behind this film).
The film begins with James on a ship, in the military, on his way home from World War I. He returns as a war hero, decorated with a medal. Prior to joining the military, he had been working at a factory in his New Jersey hometown--a job he doesn't at all look forward to resuming. But when he arrives home, he discovers that his Reverend brother and his mother are expecting him to go back to the factory and not make waves. He obliges at first, but he really wants to become an engineer. Exasperated, he leaves home again, looking for work. Times are tough (remember that I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang was made during the Great Depression in the U.S.) and James quickly moves from state to state trying to find and retain work.
Things do not go so well. James ends up traveling along rail lines and staying in homeless shelters. At one, he hooks up with a man who says that he can mooch a couple of hamburgers for them from the owner of a diner. The mooching works, but the man suddenly pulls out a gun and initiates an armed robbery. James is forced into participating and gets caught, bringing him to prison. The first section of the film focuses on existence in the chain gang. Later, as one could surmise from the title, James becomes a fugitive, and the story becomes entrancingly complex as he tries to begin a new life. But difficulties keep arising.
As he often did, director Mervyn LeRoy achieves a style that seems remarkably modern. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is extremely serious, but never approaches melodrama. Instead, it has a wonderfully gritty atmosphere that tends to be underplayed instead--there are similarities to more recent films that it probably influenced such as Don Siegel's Escape from Alcatraz (1979) and Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law (1986), both excellent in their own right.
The plot is a bit sprawling in terms of the number of events, the number of years and the number of geographic locations covered, yet the screenplay, by Howard J. Green, Brown Holmes and Sheridan Gibney, is extremely tight and logical. Nothing is superfluous. The pacing is always right on target. LeRoy knows exactly when to dwell on a scene versus when to let months fly by with changing calendar pages. The cinematography is also very attractive. LeRoy includes a lot of subtly clever artistic touches such as symbolic continuity in his edits--for example, from a judge's gavel to a swinging sledgehammer on the chain gang.
Muni is simply incredible. He's a perfect fit for the character. His performance makes the film extremely believable, even when the character makes some ill-advised choices. He seems as skilled at action as he is at drama (there are a few action sequences here in the modern sense of that genre term). I haven't seen many of Muni's films yet, but after seeing this one, I'm anxious to check them out. The rest of the cast is fine, but Muni receives 90-something percent of the screen time.
In addition to the "indictment" of the chain gang system, LeRoy and his writers make the film a tragic parable of freedom versus regimentation. James is a freethinking individualist, almost in an Ayn Rand sense, who is constantly trapped in various conformist systems. The military is the first symbol of this, and so is the factory that James dreads going back to. His brother is a symbol of conservative systematization via religion. And of course, the chain gang is the most negative system in which James becomes entrapped. When James is the freest--when he's wandering from state to state--he's also the most disadvantaged in terms of societal norms. His eventual vocation in the film can be seen as a gradual climb towards existential authenticity, and his work is symbolic--he's not just literally building bridges, roads and such. Ironically, he was engaged in the same kind of work on the chain gang, and ultimately, James is not able to achieve the freedom/authenticity that he desires. It's as if the film is making the argument that extreme uniqueness entails marginalization as a fringe element in a way that's often actively negative. Of course, there are many other interpretations possible, but it's difficult to deny some of these messages.
But, however analytical you want to get, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a must-see for any cinephile. The film is enjoyable on many different levels, and is far ahead of its time.
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