the REEL WORLD: 1932

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

This is a truly harrowing docudrama, based on the autobiography of Robert E. Burns, a World War I veteran. Burns, called James Allen and played by Paul Muni in the film, was unable to find work after coming home, and drifted among several American cities until he got tangled up in a robbery of a lunch counter and was sentenced to ten years' hard labor on a Georgia chain gang. Escaping from the gang, Burns fled to Chicago and built a respectable life for himself until a gold-digging woman found out his secret and blackmailed him into marrying her. Eventually he was revealed, and voluntarily returned to the chain gang because he was promised a release within 90 days. When the 90 days were over and his parole refused, he escaped again and went into hiding.

The film is brutal in its depiction of life on chain gangs, which were still being used as a legal form of punishment in Georgia at the time. There is much careful attention to detail, in the interactions between the guards and the prisoners, among the prisoners themselves, and between Allen and his family and others outside the gang. The Hays Office worried that southern states would boycott a film so critical of their "justice" system, and demanded several changes. Allen's travels from city to city are shown on a US map, but it is particularly noticeable that his destination is not shown when he heads into the town with the fateful lunch counter. Also, the film's title was changed from that of the book, which was called I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!

Tim Dirks' review describes the riveting final scene of the film, and contains an image of one of the contemporary promotional posters. Damian Cannon's review offers some more insight into Allen's character and his interactions with the people around him.

This film is justifiably famous and highly recommended.

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Emily Way (
Last updated July 9, 1998