I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Director:  Mervyn LeRoy

USA,  1932

So begins the gritty prison drama, or at least an early incarnation of the genre.  Paul Muni stars as James Allen, a young man freshly back from WWI who wants to make a name for himself.  Instead of returning to his job at a factory, he hits the road looking for an engineering job.  He soon arrives in New Orleans, where he is falsely accused of stealing $5 and change.  He is sentenced to work on a chain gang.  The inhuman conditions eventually drive him to make a daring (and painful) escape.  He moves to Chicago where he finally gets a job as an engineer.  He works hard for several years, continually being promoted.  He ends up being one of the most respected members of Chicago society.  Along the way he meets a girl who discovers his past.  She uses this blackmail him.  He finally calls her bluff when he wants to marry the girl he loves.  The blackmailer turns him in to the police, who want to send him back to the chain gang.  The city of Chicago does not want him to go.  They feel he had paid his debt to society.  The prosecutors from Louisiana promise him that if he willingly returns, he will be pardoned after 90 days.  He agrees, as he merely wants to move on with his life.  Once back on the chain gang, the prison system soon recants on their promise.  He escapes once again, this time doomed to spend the rest of his life on the run.

It is imminently clear that this film has a social message.  The story is based on the true memoirs of Robert E. Burns.  He had hoped to expose the cruelty of the chain gangs.  One scene in particular that is highly effective is where Allen his plotting his escape.  The prisoners are working on removing railroad tracks.  He asks a fellow prisoner to hit the shackles on his ankles so that they will bend.  He will then be able to slip out of them.  This means that his ankle is being hit with a sledge hammer.  His desire to be free and the escape the torment of the guards is so strong that he is willing to endure this.  In the end it is implied that the injustice of the system has turned him into a fearful, desperate criminal.  He is willing to do almost anything to stay alive and free.

One particular movie that is of the same vein is The Shawshank Redemption.  Both are about a man wrongly accused.  Both are about a corrupt system.  Both involve escapes.  Shawshank is much more about the people and their friendships.  IAAFFACG is more socially aware.  It is effective at making us empathize with the convict.  Paul Muni does an effective job in his role.  He has almost a boyish quality about him.  In this movie it makes him seem like an innocent everyman.  Muni was also in Howard Hawks’ Scarface.  In that film, Muni’s boyish quality makes seem a childish truant, which is what his character essentially is–a heartless, sadistic one at that.

LeRoy’s direction is very good.  His visual style is not overly complicated, but it is nicely creative at times, and far from mundane.  There is a scene where footage of the chain gang working is overlapped with the picture of a calender.  The men are singing and swinging their hammers in time with the music.  The pages of the calender turn with each strike of the hammers.  I thought this was an interesting touch.   The final scene is also very memorable, as James Allen gradually faces into darkness.  Very effective.

Rating: 8/10

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