Before there was Sansho the Bailiff, Wages of Fear, Army of Shadows, A Man Escaped, Sullivan’s Travels or Twelve Years a Slave, there was I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Based on the autobiography of Robert Elliott Burns, a New Jersey man who escaped from a Georgia penal institution, not once, but twice, I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is one of the first, and still one of the best, films to explore the prison industrial complex, the essentially fascist nature of capitalism, and the meaning of “freedom.” It also had a direct influence on the politics of the early 1930. Its success not only made it possible for the Governor of New Jersey to refuse to extradite Burns to Georgia, it provoked a retaliatory lawsuit by the Georgia chain gang warden J. Harold Hardy against Warner Brothers for “vicious, brutal and false attacks.”
And thus begins a second drama that rivals the one recounted in his book. Warden J. Harold Hardy of the Troup County chain gang – a prominent character in this book – and Troup County police Chief R. B. Carter went to New Jersey to take Burns back to Georgia after extradition. However, New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore received hundreds of telegrams and letters, including one representing the 800 members of the Fourteenth Engineers Veterans’ Association, Burns’ old outfit, opposing extradition. All this outpouring of support was a result of the media coverage Burns received at the time and the overwhelming popularity of his story, both the book and the film.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang begins with Sergeant James Allen, played by the seminal American actor Paul Muni, returning to his hometown from the western front of the First World War. His older brother, a Protestant minister, advises him to go back to his old job as a clerk in the local shoe factory, but Allen has other plans. Having learned civil engineering in the army, he wants to start over again in the construction industry. So he hits the road, running squarely into the deep, and pretty much forgotten recession that hit the United States following the First World War. Allen’s brother was right. Jobs aren’t easy to come by when you’re competing against over a million demobilized soldiers. He should have taken his old job back, and sat tight until the recession was over. Soon he’s one of many unemployed hobos wandering through America looking for work.
Allen refused his old job at the shoe factory because his experience in the army had taught him to dislike regimentation. He has no idea what’s coming. When a fellow hobo invites the hungry Allen out for a hamburger, he enthusiastically tags along, only to realize, to his horror, that he’s been tricked into participating in an armed robbery. Of course the police, who arrive quickly on scene, don’t believe his story of having only come along for the hamburger, especially when he panics and tries to run. Sentenced to ten years hard labor on a George chain gang, where the food is barely edible, and where torture is regularly to motivate prisoners who can’t take the brutal sixteen-hour work days, he begins to long for his former life as an unemployed bum. Allen quickly realizes that if he doesn’t escape soon, the regimentation and the bad food will begin to feel normal, that his life will essentially be over. Against all odds, and with the help of his fellow prisoners, one African American, he manages to bend the cuffs of his chain far enough to slip out and “take it on the lamb.” One of the most radical things about I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is the way Allen’s fellow prisoners are not only racially diverse, but capable of solidarity. They’re not depraved criminals so much as proletarians trapped inside an essentially fascist capitalism.
Note: Yes, they could have, and probably should, have made the black prisoner who helps Allen break his chains the real star of the film, but that would have been another movie, 12 Years a Slave to be precise.
James Allen’s escape from the Georgia chain gang to Chicago not only holds up as a nail biting thriller, it’s probably better than most films being released today. It’s certainly better than the overrated The Fugitive from the 1990s. Just about the only film that puts us so squarely in the shoes of a man trying against all odds to get away from his captors is Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped. Watch both films consecutively to compare the revolutionary potential of Pre-Code Hollywood and the French New Wave. Bresson would never cast an actor as expressive as Paul Muni, but they’re not as different as you might think. Allen’s success in Chicago under an assumed name – he finally gets that job in construction he wanted so badly and eventually rises to become superintendent of a construction site – is overshadowed by Marie, a jealous, resentful woman who finds out about his real identity and uses it to blackmail him into marrying her. The misogynistic portrayal of Marie is perhaps the film’s biggest weak point – it’s just the “woman scorned” cliche – but there is a point behind it. Under capitalism, even a comfortable member of the bourgeoisie, which Allen has now become, isn’t genuinely free. Alienated from ourselves, and from our fellow suffering humans, every man still back on the chain gang in Georgia, we are still regimented. It’s a kinder, gentler, far more comfortable variety of slavery, but it’s slavery none the less. So when Allen meets Helen, the woman of his dreams – actually she’s as much of a card board cutout as his wife – he attempts to convince Marie to give him a divorce, and she rats him out to the police, who are still on his trail after all those years.
James Allen is once again a prisoner of the state. Released from the necessity to live under an assumed name, however, and as a prominent bourgeoisie with access to the media, he can now agitate for his fellow prisoners back in Georgia, and against the prison industrial complex in general. Without a revolutionary movement behind him, however, James Allen is doomed. The governor of Georgia, which promises him a full pardon if he goes back and serves another ninety days, goes back on his word. Of course he does. We all know he will, and it’s almost unbearable to watch Allen reject the advice of his lawyer and take the deal. Did Allen really believe he was ever going to get out of that prison system once they tricked him back inside? His second round of incarceration is, if anything, even worse than the first, not only because his fellow prisoners no longer respect him – they rightfully think he’s an idiot – but because he places his “hope,” not in outright rebellion, but in the idea that “the system” might be fair. So he waits, and waits, and waits while his “pardon” is pushed back further and further, first ninety days, then a year, then indefinitely. It’s only when he loses all hope that the state of Georgia will ever release him that he regains his ability to act, and by that time it’s too late. He’s crossed the line from rebel over to hardened criminal.
It’s interesting to speculate on the potential of “Pro-Code” Hollywood, that short era between the advent of “talkies” and the introduction of the “Production Code” in 1934, those three or four years when Hollywood was not only putting out sophisticated romantic comedies like Gold Diggers of 1933 and Flying Down to Rio, but “social justice” films like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. American cinema might have become as revolutionary as the Soviet Cinema of the 1920s, or the French New Wave. Alas though, the puritan scolds of the Republican Party and the Catholic Church saw what they were up against and put a stop to it. Indeed, few Americans realize that between 1934 and 1968, American cinema was subject to a regime of censorship that was as strict as anything in the “free world.” When the Production Code finally started to break down in the 1960s, the result was more “Bonnie and Clyde” than I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, coarse violent exploitation rather than a profound meditation on the nature of freedom, capitalism and the prison industrial complex.