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.
Returning veteran James Allen, rejecting a return to the old factory grind, degenerates into a hobo. Innocently involved in robbery, he is railroaded onto an incredibly brutal chain gang. Finally escaping, he makes his way to Chicago, where he finds success in the construction industry...and grasping girlfriend Marie, who threatens to expose him if he doesn't marry her. When he meets and falls for Helen, things go from bad to worse.
Wrongly convicted James Allen serves in the intolerable conditions of a southern chain gang, which later comes back to haunt him.
- It is about 1922. Sergeant James Allen is returning home by boat to New York City after having served a stint in the Army and in World War One in Europe, being awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre. After taking part in a welcome home parade with fellow soldiers, he travels by train to his hometown in New Jersey.
James is welcomed home by his mother, his prissy brother that is a Protestant minister, younger sister, and former boss from the factory he worked. His boss has reserved his old job as a shoe factory shipping clerk he had before joining the Army. Though it is a decent job and pays him over $50 a week, which was good money back in the early 1920's, James served in the Army Corps of Engineers and wants to do something more rewarding by building things, instead of a routine life of a desk job. Plus the war made him restless. Much to the dismay of his brother, who wants him to settle down and keep his steady job, his mother supports him and wants him to do what makes him happy and what his heart desires.
James leaves his small New Jersey hometown for Boston and soon after being hired by a construction company, he is laid off. He then travels by boat to New Orleans and looks for a job at a construction site, but they are not hiring. After 4 months, James gets a temporary job driving a truck in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, but is soon laid off. He stops at a pawn shop in St. Louis attempting to get cash for his Belgian Croix De Guerre, but is rejected due to the box full of medals other former service members already pawned. He is last seen heading south. To avoid identity of the state, which was actually Georgia in the true life story of Robert Elliot Burns, it fades out around Kentucky and Tennessee on the map and James is seen walking on railroad tracks. After over a year of looking for work and taking up temporary jobs, he is now a homeless and penniless vagrant.
James takes up residence in a homeless shelter in the fictional city of Stanton (a pseudonym for Atlanta) and meets a man named Pete that offers him to go for a handout at a lunch wagon for a hamburger. James heartily accepts and they go there with the owner reluctantly agreeing to give them a handout. Pete pulls a gun on the owner to rob his cash drawer and then on James forcing him to rob the $5. Pete is soon shot dead by local police. James instinctively runs from the scene, but the police arrest him.
James is sentenced by the county judge 10 years imprisonment on the chain gang for the minor theft. Supposedly the diner owner either lied to the police or refused to testify for James for the incident, since he did see James forced to rob the register at the point of a gun.
James is at a rural prison camp just outside of Stanton with leg shackles being attached to him by a blacksmith. At 4:20 the next morning, the guards are turning on the oil lanterns and waking up the prisoners, who are chained to their bed. James sleeps through the removal of the chains and is pushed by a guard and has his chain thrown in his face. He and the prisoners all go to eat breakfast, an abominable meal of pork fat, grease, a piece dough made out of flour and lard, and sorghum molasses, which helps make the food somewhat more tolerable. The meal is served for breakfast and dinner every single day.
The black and white prisoners are separated from each other in housing and trucks that chain them drive to the worksites. The prisoners await the rising of the sun before getting to work. They are forced to chop rocks in a quarry for over 15 hours a day nonstop, with only a short restroom break with the approval of the guards and lunch break. James wipes sweat off his brow without permission from the guards and punched for it. He learns the ropes through an elderly prisoner named Bomber Wells, who injects a lot of humor into the situation. Another prisoner named Red, who is on the verge of dying from overwork, passes out and guards attempt to revive him by throwing cold water on him.
It is 8:20 p.m. and the prisoners are dirty and exhausted from over 15 hours of work. The only bathing they have available is a galvanized steel tub full of water they rinse themselves in and share. James and the prisoners sit down to the same abominable meal they had for breakfast, this time enjoying it somewhat.
After mealtime and at bedtime, the warden asks the guards to point out the prisoners that did not give them a good days work. Ackerman and Red are chosen. James calls the warden a skunk under his breath for wanting to whip Red, who is obviously on the verge of dying. Ackerman gets ten lashes and screaming, with his scarred and bloody back revealed. James is whipped instead of Red at least fifteen times and takes it stoically, to the admiration of the other prisoners.
About one month later, prisoner Barney has now completed his sentence convincing the others they can get out alive by "work out or die out". Prisoner Red has also left, but in a pine box, having died from overwork. James is determined to break free from the prison, but Bomber advises him that he needs to wait weeks or even months to scout out the area and have a good plan before doing it.
Several months pass and James asks a large black prisoner by the name of Sebastian to bend his shackles with a sledgehammer, while they're working on the railroad tracks. That night, James successfully pulls the shackles off. Bomber gives him $7 (almost $100 in 2013 dollars) and wishes him luck.
That Monday, James asks the guard permission to "get out here", to use the bathroom. He takes his shackles off and makes a run for it. The guards gather up the bloodhounds and follow his trail. James conveniently finds a house with clothes on a clothesline to put on and take off his prison clothes to lose the dogs scent. He hides in a pond using a reed to breathe and is just inches away from a guard searching for him before the guard turns back.
James successfully makes it to Stanton. A brief nighttime scene is seen of Atlanta's Forsyth Street with the Rialto Theater and Dixie Hotel. James is walking the streets cautiously and enters a men's clothing store for a suit and hat. Then he goes to a barber shop for a shave. A police officer enters and tells the barber there was a breakout on the chain gang. James leaves the barber shop without the police noticing him. Then he goes to a hotel to see his former fellow prisoner Barney, who has been free for the past several months. He is allegedly running a prostitution ring and offers James a comfortable bedroom, booze, and a nice lady for the night.
The next day, James is enjoying a hamburger and soda at a stand near the train station. The Chief of Police makes a trip to search for him. Just as he is about to get on the train, the police are supposedly trying to catch him, but instead capture a bum nearby. As soon as he gets on the train, the porter asks for his ticket inquiring why he didn't see him and that there was an escaped prisoner search, but they didn't find him. Allegedly, the porter and another porter secretly converse that James could be the escaped prisoner, but they leave the room and nothing happens.
James stops somewhere in Tennessee or Kentucky, then travels by vehicle and foot to Chicago. He applies for a menial job as a laborer at Tri State Construction, starting off at $4 a day as Allen James. After two years as a laborer, he is promoted to foreman at $7 a day.
James goes to find a place for rent from a boarder, a flirtatious blonde lady by the name of Marie Woods, who is asking for $25 a month, but she lowers it to $20 and he accepts. Little does James know Marie is a scheming, manipulative sociopath that is about to make his life a living hell.
James is spending his nights at home studying engineering and resisting Marie's advances. After 5 years with Tri State Construction company and promoted to Assistant Superintendent, James is about to leave the boardinghouse and tells Marie he doesn't love her, but she shows him a letter his brother wrote to him about his life on the chain gang. She promises she will never tell anybody his secret as long as he marries her.
James has made well at his job pleasing his superiors with his project for building a bridge and made his way up to field superintendent. But despite that, Marie is spending all his money on booze, lavish dinners, men, and leaving the house a mess.
James' boss invites his to a party dinner at the Club Chateau and he falls in love with a woman named Helen, who also likes him, but finds him a little strange and troubled.
It is now 1930 and the beginning of the Great Depression. James has confessed to Marie he's in love with another woman and she continues to be a spendthrift and leave the house a mess. He wants an amicable divorce, but she refuses knowing she would lose all she has, even though he offers her what she wants. He loses it and tells her his life with her is just as bad as the chain gang and she storms out the door leaving him.
The next day while at work and receiving an invitation to speak at a banquet, a detective barges in to James' office arresting him. Newspapers are on the screen about a fine citizen that has made good in Chicago being a wanted fugitive.
While in jail, Allen has spoken to reporters about his life on a southern chain gang and swears by it. Chicago officials have refused his extradition back to the prison.
The Chicago DA and Allen's lawyer, along with a shady Southern representative, are all in an office with the representative promising a pardon to Allen in 90 days if he voluntarily goes back to serve in a clerical job. His lawyer does not recommend it, but his girlfriend Helen says he should do it to clear his name. Allen decides to go back and the representative assures him it is a good decision he won't regret.
Allen goes back to Stanton and his lawyer Ramsey is paid over $2,500 up front and tells Allen that the clerical job may not happen because of the criticism Allen made to the press about the chain gangs. The assurance of the pardon seems to be fading as well
Allen has been assigned to the Tuttle County prison camp. It turns out no promises have been kept for him and that the camp he is assigned to this time is even more harsh than the first one he was at. His old pal, Bomber Wells from the first prison, has been assigned to this one because of attempted assault on a guard at the first one. He and other fellow prisoners assure Allen there is no such thing as a pardon, but Allen remains somewhat hopeful. The next day, he and the prisoners are swinging sledgehammers with a fellow black prisoner singing "Raise Them High" to make the day more bearable
After three months, the prison chairman, Lawyer Ramsey, Allen's brother, and three prison commission board members are present at a hearing about releasing Allen. Allen's brother weakly testifies he has made good despite his past, his lawyer says he's paid his part of the bargain and voluntarily returned to have his sentence commuted, but the chairman insists that the chain gang is a good character builder, crime must be punished, and that Allen made unwarranted and untrue attacks against the chain gang system. During the testimonies from Ramsey, Allen, and the chairman, all three prison commission board members sit with a glare of cold indifference on their face, making it evident they already had their minds made up before the hearing.
The Reverend Allen visits James in his prison declaring the bad news he was rejected for release. Allen realizes he was lied to and that they just want revenge, but the Reverend tells him if he will be a model prisoner for nine more months, they will release him and be forced to through support of his fans.
Allen perseveres and serves out his nine months. Lawyer Ramsey and the prison chairman meet with the three board members once again. Ramsey said Allen has served as a model prisoner and had letters from prominent officials and the three board members still sit with the same glare of cold indifference they did at the first hearing.
Allen is in his bunk that night and by this time has grayed hair. and notified by the warden that the decision is suspended indefinitely and that he will have to serve the remainder of his sentence. Allen is beyond pained and crushed.
Some time later, Allen dupes a dump truck driver at a quarry that there is a broken spring. He and Bomber hijack the truck and make a run for it. With a police car chasing them and a number of guards shooting at the truck, they use some dynamite in the truck to explode near one of the hills and slow down or stop the police car. Bomber is shot and falls out of the truck. Afterwards, Allen cuts his shackles off, then lights a bunch of dynamite and throws it at a bridge to keep the police from chasing him any further.
Once again newspaper headlines flood the screen about Allen's second escape and being a hunted fugitive with the final one noting that it's been a year since his disappearance.
One night, Helen pulls up in her garage and Allen calls out for her. He is now a broken and destitute man that is constantly moving from place to place and deprived of sleep just to avoid being found. Helen wants him to stay, but he insists he's still on the run and can't. He confesses he steals just to survive.