I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ★★★★½

I Am a Fugitive from an American Gulag.

This is as biting a piece of social criticism as I’ve ever seen. It chains and horsewhips the viewer to empathy and outrage. It's saturated with a nihilism that would disappear from Hollywood for 40 years. The State turns a man from a bridge-builder into at bridge-destroyer. From stealing at only at gunpoint, to stealing to survive and dissolving into darkness. A testament to what an earlier Robert Burns (and the real James Allen’s namesake) called “man’s inhumanity to man.”

Society has him locked in a prison or on the run. Locked in the prison of a factory. Chained to a bunk. Chained to a blackmailing vamp. He can’t escape so he “wants to build bridges and roads for people to use when they want to get away from things — but can’t get away, nobody can.” You can only “work out or die out,” hitching a ride on someone else’s coffin. Hellhounds on your trail.

Muni’s performance is raw. An archetype of desperation and fractured nobility. Aristotelian in evoking of pity and fear. Muni goes from working at “The Home of Komfort Shoes” to iron shackles on his ankles. He puts us in his shoes, his leg irons. We wonder what we would do in his place.

LeRoy’s and Sol Polito’s centerpiece chain gang sequences are unparalleled. Realistic, but with the precision and power of Expressionism. LeRoy creates tropes that resonate through the decades and will be incorporated wholesale or played against in The Defiant Ones, Cool Hand Luck, Take the Money and Run, Oh Brother, Where art Thou?. There are thriller set pieces that would later be called Hitchcockian: the underwater reed-breathing escape, the (literally) close shave in the barbershop, and the dump truck & dynamite chase scene.

It would have been a full-on Five-star if (instead of the sappy I-gotta-be-happy-Ma beginning) the movie opened with trench digging labor on the killing fields of the Argonne. Seeing a visual link between the images of Muni swinging a pick in the war, to swinging a sledge on the chain gang, to swinging a pick again on a road crew, would drive the link between the inhumanity of war and the penal system.

Further viewing:

Edison 1902 film of a chain gang in the Library of Congress

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