Although 80 years have passed since the premiere of this film it still remains one of the most smashing, distressing and harrowing depictions of prison violence in history. The story of James Allen (brilliantly and believably played by the up-and-coming Paul Muni) is both a significant, not-so-typical cautionary tale, and a bold statement against inane jail systems and the covert acts of human exploitation that happen behind its walls.
Upon his return home James – contrary to his family’s requests – rejects the job offer from his earlier employer and decides to follow the dream of becoming a prominent architect. Unfortunately, the country’s economic instability shows its true face when James rides around the country without any chances of finding real work. If this wasn’t enough, one day he meets a shady character who invites him for a free burger at a nearby joint. Soon it becomes clear that this man is actually a small-time robber, and James is dragged into the whole intrigue with him, just to be found guilty with a proper trail and sentenced for 10 years on a chain gang. The enormous brutality and inhumane treatment of the prisoners make I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang a real punch-in-the-face. One day James finally finds a way of escaping from the nightmare and begins to re-live his life and finally fulfills his lifelong dream. While he soon becomes a master craftsman in the architectural industry, new problems arise thereafter. He is pressured into marrying his landlady – who happens to know his past – and when he begins to have feelings for another woman, she starts threatening his huge secret. Before long he is once again – this time voluntarily, due to his prior agreement with the prison chieftains – sentenced to hard work in the chain gang. Hoping for a one-month stay he endures another 10 years in the horrible, atrocious conditions.
I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a perfectly astounding exposition of the unstable and literally bestial chain gang system. With its sinister ambiance and hard-hitting imagery, the film presents a grievous story of one innocent man’s attempt at rescuing what’s left of his already dilapidated life.