Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang


I can’t imagine how I managed to go this long without seeing this film. Now that I have seen it, I can say that it is simply one of the most important films ever made, and one of the best.

Films of social protest were not common in 1932, and would not be common again for many years, as the terrible Hays Code would not have allowed most of this movie to be shown, particularly the ending. It was the almost universal practice to tack on a “Hollywood ending” even to the most tragic story. You almost expect that, in Romeo and Juliet, the star-crossed lovers would survive and live happily ever after. Evil could not be shown to triumph in the end, especially if it was evil perpetrated by the state (in this case, Georgia, though the state is never named). And here it triumphs. Oh, does it ever.

Paul Muni is a WWI veteran who strikes out to make a new life in construction when he finds no satisfaction in his factory job, shuffling papers, after his experiences in the trenches. But there’s no work. (There’s a whole ‘nother story there, of how shamefully America treated its returning vets.) He is down and out, and gets tangled up in a robbery for $5. Not his fault, but he is convicted, and sentenced to ten years at hard labor. From there we see the horrors of the Georgia chain gang system (many of them reprised in Cool Hand Luke, but without the chains). It is brutal, it is dehumanizing, it can easily be fatal, and there is little hope for escape.

But it can be done, and after planning and waiting for two years, Paul hits the bushes and, after many close calls, gets away. In a series of quick, short scenes, we see him rise through the ranks of a construction company, until he has an office and is a respected citizen. But his wife, who has forced him to marry her by threatening to reveal that he is an escaped convict, finally does turn him in. He fights extradition, and stirs up considerable sympathy in Illinois and other states. The authorities are all set to refuse the governor of Georgia, when an offer is made. Return for 90 days of easy labor as a trusty, and at the end of that time we will pardon you. Your record will be clear. Well, I smelled a rat right off, but he goes back … into an even worse rat-hole than he left. Time after time they deny his release. (Almost all of this is true!) Fed up, on the edge of insanity, he escapes again.

Up to this point the movie has been riveting, appalling, horrifying, but the true genius of the script and direction happens in the very last scene. He has been at large for a year, and one night he emerges from the darkness and meets his girlfriend. He is a shadow of a man, with eyes that never stop moving, gaunt, dirty, paranoid. He tells her he can never see her again, he must remain a creature of the night. As he backs away, as he is swallowed up in the shadows, she asks him how he gets by. Invisible by now, he utters one of the most haunting final lines of any movie, ever. It comes from a totally black screen:

“I steal.”

I’m getting goosebumps again. This monstrous system has taken a man who never did wrong, who with his second chance was leading an exemplary life, who was doing a lot of good, and turned him into a wraith who must prey on society simply to survive.

This film was banned in Georgia. Georgia officials sued Warner Brothers (unsuccessfully, hooray!). The producer and director were told that if they ever set foot in Georgia, they would get a taste of the chain gang themselves. As if you needed another reason not to visit that cracker shit-hole. Most important of all, it led to a movement to abolish the worst excesses of the prison systems across the country. Several governors issued pardons to Robert Elliot Burns, the man who wrote the book this was based on, a direct slap in the face to the governor of Georgia. As long as he stayed in New Jersey, he was safe from the motherfuckers.