After coming home from World War I, James Allen (Paul Muni) has a hard time readjusting to civilian life. His old job bores him and he has a hard time finding work in a new field. He drifts from city to city, looking for any work he can get. Completely broke, he unwittingly ends up being an accomplice in a restaurant hold-up and police assume he really was responsible for the robbery. He’s sentenced to serve ten years on a chain gang.
Life on the chain gang is excessively brutal and James feels he has no other choice but to make an escape attempt. After successfully escaping, he makes his way to Chicago and becomes a great success in the construction business. But when he rents a room in a boarding house from Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell), she falls in love with him and uses his past to blackmail him into marrying her. Marie later sends James up the river again when he asks her for a divorce so he can marry Helen (Helen Vinson) instead.
Authorities offer James the chance to be pardoned if he comes back and serves 90 days. Wanting to move on with his life, James agrees, but later realizes he was never going to be pardoned and it was all a sham to get him to finish his sentence. His only hope for freedom is to make yet another escape.
Do I ever love this movie. It’s a little bit slow in the beginning, but if you stick with it for just a little while, it takes off like a shot and brings you along for a wild ride. At its best, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang has moments that really ought to be considered some of the most thrilling and most suspenseful moments in film history. Everybody should see this movie at least once in their lives.
The Definitive Pre-Code Moment
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang doesn’t really have one definitive pre-code moment. It’s major pre-code factor is its message.
Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code
Film makers in the pre-code era had the freedom to produce movies that had a hard-hitting social commentary message and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang is the ultimate example of that type of movie. Wild Boys of the Road was a social commentary type of movie and Gold Diggers of 1933 had its political moments, but Fugitive is a rare breed of movie that actually brought about societal change. Fugitive is widely credited with putting an end to the chain gang system in the south.
Far from being a work of Hollywood fiction, Fugitive is based on the true story of Robert Elliot Burns who, unlike Paul Muni’s character, actually did work with two other men to rob a grocery store for a little over $5.00. Although the movie never specifically mentions the chain gang being in Georgia, that is where Burns was sentenced and Warner Brothers was sued by a chain gang warden and by the Georgia Prison Commission. Warner Brothers won those court battles.
The movie is a largely accurate depiction of his experiences so between the success of the movie and the publication of Burns’ autobiography, he was able to find protection in New Jersey thanks to a sympathetic governor. He was officially pardoned in 1945 and was able to live the last ten years of his life as a free man.