1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die: I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang
When watching I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang(1932), you are struck by the fact that countless numbers of movies have copied what was started here. All of the standards of prison drama seem to have been born in this film. It has the abusive prison guards, the court system that gives an innocent man the shaft, an older inmate who befriends the protagonist while showing him the rules of prison life, and it is all grounded by a terrific performance by Paul Muni.
The story revolves around a recent World War I vet who feels rootless after coming home and travels the country chasing construction work. While down on his luck, he accidentally becomes an accomplice to a robbery at a burger stand that goes horribly wrong. Though protesting his innocence, he is immediately arrested and sentenced to 10 years hard labor. While in prison, he discovers the harsh 16 hour work days, being chained to other inmates, and being forced to pound away at hard, hot manual labor to the point of collapse (and sometimes death). Apparently this movie was so eye opening to the general public that it prompted actual reforms in the American prison system at the time.
He manages to escape, creates a life for himself, but his shady past catches up to him in tragic and unexpected ways. What I found most interesting in this film is how dark and morally ambiguous the story becomes. Muni’s character obviously doesn’t deserve what becomes of him, yet he is failed by pretty much every corner of society when it comes to receiving any help. His gradual slide into lonely outsider is painful to watch.
In my mental world of perfect double features, this would go well with The Shawshank Redemption. Both are about a lone innocent trying to hold it together while suffering years of incarceration.
Paul Muni is an actor our generation doesn’t acknowledge much these days. Other figures of the era like John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Stewart tend to overshadow others. But 1932 was a big year for Muni. He starred in both this and Scarface that year. He starred in big movies throughout the 30s and 40s, and eventually bridged the gap into some television work as well in the 50s and 60s. He definitely seems to be someone worth re-examining.