I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ★★★★

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is a deeply impressive piece of filmmaking, an undeniably hard-hitting work that must have left audiences in 1932 sitting in stunned silence at not only its abrupt, hopeless ending, but also the uncompromising darkness that runs through its veins. It also, however, effectively highlights a number of blind spots that were present at the time even at socially aware studios like Warner Bros. — studios sincerely interested in education, and highlighting injustice.

First and foremost, it's crucial to recognize that James Allen (Paul Muni) is a white, decorated war veteran. (I realize that this is also true of Robert Elliott Burns, the man on whose autobiography and life the story was based.) Further, his validity as a human being — as a person who should not be forced to endure the horror of the chain gang — is due entirely to his newly respectable status. It's made abundantly clear that, while the movie condemns chain gangs simply by showing them, and there is some rhetoric (mostly written, so we can choose to read it or not) on-screen about them being harmful, it's who Allen is that should save him, not the injustice of the system itself. The upper crust of Chicago wouldn't be screaming foul for the recapture of a Black man, nor that of one of the thousands of invisible white men working blue collar jobs in the city. Further, none of the less admired people with whom he's in prison, and certainly none of the Black ones — are ever considered as worthy of freedom, even just from the cruel rigorous of the chain gang.

Second, Allen is undone not by the chain gang, but by a spiteful woman. Yes, he's a fool to trust promises from the state that wants him back, and it's vengeful prison officials that keep him incarcerated, but none of it would have happened had a woman (Marie, played by Glenda Farrell) not made him her victim — and in multiple ways. First, for reasons that are never fully explained, Marie forces Allen (who, at this point, is newly financially stable, though wealth is later framed as her motive) into marrying her with the threat of exposure, thus ultimately keeping him from the happiness he would otherwise find with his rich, upper class true love. Second, it is Marie who sets the police on his trail, both in an effort to punish him for withdrawing his financial support and, we're led to believe, because he's found love, and as an unhappy, dissolute woman, she can't stand anyone else having what she can't find.

Since very little of this is actually true of Burns' life (indeed, the only connection is that he alleged that it was his ex-wife — who he married by his own free will! — who exposed him, years after their divorce), it was likely inserted into the story both to simplify events, and to create a villain. And, in a movie that is theoretically condemning a system, to have its protagonist in the grasp of that system because of a disloyal woman feels both cheap and predictable. It's perhaps foolish to have expected more, but wouldn't that system and have been more effectively condemned had Allen be discovered simply through his continued existence? A picture in the paper, for example, or being seen in the street? After all, the unrelenting pursuit by the craven agents of (in)justice is a far more powerful cause for his downfall than the petty actions of a single woman.

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