I am so thankful for TCM. This wonderful network has allowed me to discover so many old films that I might otherwise have never seen. Among those films, 1932’s I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.
As you might guess from the title, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was something of a low-budget B-movie. It’s also one of the few films that can legitimately claim to have changed society. The fugitive of the title is James Allen (Paul Muni), a veteran of the First World War who, feeling uncomfortable in peace time and unable to find work, finds himself in Georgia where he unintentionally becomes involved in a robbery and then ends up being sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang. After suffering months of inhumane treatment, Allen finally escapes. He makes his way up north and, much like Jean Valjean, attempts to start a new life for himself. However, even as he find success, he knows that he could be exposed and sent back to prison at any moment.
Here’s 6 reasons to watch I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang.
1) It’s based on a true story. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was based on a book written by a man named Robert Ellis Burns. Burns actually had served time on and escaped from a Georgia chain gang. At the time the movie came out, Burns was still a fugitive. The movie was such a success and was so effective that when Burns was later arrested in New Jersey, the governor refused to extradite him. Burns was finally pardoned in 1945 and lived the rest of his days as a free man.
2) I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang got results. Alone among the major studios in the 30s, Warner Bros. specialized in making films that dealt with social issues. While other studios either celebrated wealth or invited audiences to escape the Great Depression through fantasy, Warner Bros. was unashamed to be on the side of the oppressed. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a perfect example of this. Not only did the film lead to Burns receiving a pardon but it also helped to end the chain gang system.
3) Director Mervyn LeRoy directs the film as if it were a film noir. By the end of the film, it’s impossible not to empathize with the main character’s growing sense of paranoia.
4) Do you know who Paul Muni is? You will after watching I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang. Paul Muni is largely forgotten today but, back in the 1930s, he was considered to be one of the best actors around. Watching him in this film, you can see why.
5) The film’s final scene is a classic. You can watch it below (and yes, this video does count as a spoiler).
6) I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang was nominated for best picture. It lost to Cavalcade, a celebration of the British upper class.