It bothers me how much this film didn’t bother me.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a film whose reputation preceded it for me. And with good reason – it’s based on the true story of Robert Elliot Burns, a bystander at a robbery who was arrested when police failed to catch the real culprits, and sentenced to hard labor in a Georgia chain gang in the 1920s. He escaped, fled the state, and lived for years under an alias, becoming a respected member of his new community – then got caught again. The governor of Georgia persuaded him to turn himself in, promising a greatly reduced sentence followed by a full pardon – but reneged on that promise once Burns was back in Georgia. So he escaped again, and wrote an expose on conditions inside Georgia’s prison system. Burns’ book became a cause celebré throughout the country, Hollywood made it into a film, and the rest of the nation pressured Georgia to abandon the chain gang system and other harsh measured in its prisons. With ten years, the last chain gang had been dissolved, and Georgia issued Burns a full pardon.
The film is very faithful to his story; sure, there are some minor details that get changed (Paul Muni stars as a guy named “James Allen” instead of “Robert Burns”, and he wants to be an engineer instead of a writer), but the big events are all there – his trumped-up arrest, his escape, his rise in society, the jealous woman who blackmails him into marriage, the bait-and-switch of his return to prison. The film includes a remarkable detail about his first escape – like all the other prisoners, he is shackled in leg irons, and is working one day on a railroad track alongside another prisoner who is renowned for his strength. Allen convinces the prisoner to help him – if Allen rests each of his ankles in turn next to the tie, and the other man hits his shackle with his sledgehammer, it will warp the shackles enough for Allen to slip them off his feet later. The other prisoner complies – even though it must have caused Allen unbelievable pain.
HBO made a more autobiographical movie about Burns in the 1980s with an interesting callback to that moment. The very end of the HBO film sees Val Kilmer, as Burns, quietly slipping into a movie theater to watch I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang; at the scene with the shackles, Kilmer-as-Burns winces and jumps with each blow on screen, flashing back to his own experience. Then gradually, he smiles, satisfied that the film is telling his truth.
And that is why I’m so bothered – because I felt like I didn’t see that. Every review I’ve read of this film talks about how harsh and shocking and cruel the scenes in the prison are – but for me, they were brief and subtle. All I saw of Allen’s initial stay in the chain gang was:
- He gets thumped on the head the first time he is expected to get ready for the initial morning wakeup call
- He gets served a plate of something icky at dinner, which we see only fleetingly, and is told that’s all he’ll ever have to eat
- He is working in the field a bit and gets another thump on the head for wiping sweat out of his eyes without asking permission
- He sasses off to the warden one night and gets whipped, which we don’t see – we hear the whip crack and see the other prisoners grimly listening
- He and some other prisoners watch one of their fellows walking out after being released, and another being carried out in a coffin – and Allen resolves to escape.
To be fair, this was likely strong stuff for the early 1930s. And the film also had to cram in an escape, a trip from Georgia to Chicago, and about three or four years of post-escape living for Allen, complete with two romances, into the film before his return to the chain gang towards the end. But I’ve even seen contemporary critics discuss how shocking a depiction of prison life that was, and I was left thinking, “….really?”
And it got me thinking about depictions of violence and torture I’ve seen in other movies that had more of an impact on me. Like the relentless and dehumanizing grind of the prison camps in Schindler’s List. Or the cruelty of the Cambodian death camps depicted in The Killing Fields. Or the inexorable passage of so much time from Shawshank Redemption. I was more affected by the HBO movie, which included a depiction of the “sweatboxes” – sort of solitary-confinement shacks – which Fugitive from a Chain Gang left out. ….Hell, I thought the Law and Order SVU episode where Detective Stabler tries to last a few days in solitary confinement had a more detailed depiction of the impact of prison on a man.
And that’s why I’m so uneasy about my reaction. I’m very aware that it is my reaction, and it is likely something I’m bringing to the film rather than something missing from the film itself. It’s not like what you see in I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a pleasant romp with puppies, after all; and intellectually, I accepted that it absolutely would be a situation that Allen would want to flee from. My only objection is that “compared to other things I’ve seen, this pulls its punches.”
But that means – I’ve seen things far worse. And that makes me uneasy about how, and why, I’ve seen those far worse things.