Mervyn LeRoy’s stunning 1932 drama, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang stands as one of the landmarks of “social justice” filmmaking. The film follows the tragic story of James Allen (Paul Muni), a recent veteran of World War I. Before the war he worked a clerical job in a factory, but the upheaval in Europe created an upheaval in his aspirations as well. With a newfound desire to work in a career outside the regimented life of the factory or the military, he leaves his mother and brother for the road, hoping to establish himself in construction and ultimately, engineering.
However, Allen’s hopes for a life of spontaneity sputter on the long and arduous road to keeping a job. He struggles to find consistent work, and ultimately gets caught up in a robbery where the gunman forces him at gunpoint to participate. Sentenced to the chain gang for ten years, Allen bristles under the unjust punishment he’s received and comes to realize he’s found himself in a more regimented life than he ever thought possible. What he’d suffered so long to get away from he now found himself subject to for the next ten years of his life.
LeRoy’s film really takes off in the chain gang sequence as his camera expressively lingers on the heavy chains, the dirty surroundings, and the faces of the convicts. Some are murderers. Others thieves. But, the camera suggests, all are human.
However, chained to their beds for the night, chained to the trucks that carry them to the job site, and chained one foot to another, they seem more like zoo animals than people. Within weeks, Allen begins actively planning his escape. He finds his opportunity after only a few months and successfully escapes to Chicago, where he establishes himself as a hard working member of a construction company. After a few years, he’s one of the young stars in the city, giving speeches to the chamber of commerce and attending dinners at classy clubs.
However, having to live under a false name, and in a marriage to a woman who essentially blackmails him, dooms Allen to more of the same. That Allen is forced to live under another set of metaphorical chains in his newfound privileged world suggests something about the way injustice permeates all of modern society. Not even money or prestige buys freedom for the innocent. Eventually, when injustice gets the best of Allen, he turns into what the society has been trying to prevent—a criminal.
LeRoy’s film suggests that the desire to live outside the regimented standards of the world places one up against a life-sapping challenge. Allen wants little more than to contribute to society in his own way rather than the way that’s been provided for him. But I Am a Fugitive . . . has a dark, shockingly cynical perspective on life in modern society. It suggests that the world we’ve created for ourselves of our own free will seeks to stamp out all individuality. This world demands conformity, and those who do not comply will be punished.
In that sense, there’s almost an apocalyptic dread seeping through the film, one that LeRoy expresses beautifully in the film’s final shot. As Allen stands in an alley unshaven and wild-eyed, whispering in a hoarse, almost unrecognizable voice to his former fiancé, he slowly fades into the darkness. Our modern world, so full of wonderful technological marvels, crisp new clothes, and cultured people, also has a dark side, one that preaches conformity and threatens our value as individuals hoping to make unique contributions to our world. It’s funny, but LeRoy’s film seems to be required viewing more now than it was even in the chain gang era of 1932.