In early 1930s, a sensational true story titled I Am A Fugitive From A Georgia Chain Gang! landed on Warner Bros desk. The story documented Robert Burns’ incarceration in a brutal chain gang and subsequent escape. The board was apprehensive to adapt due to the story’s violence, suspected uproar in the South, and an oppressive censorship board diluting the narrative. In the end, Warner and Zanuck had final say and green lit the project.
The result was inflammatory to say the least. Though the state of Georgia was omitted from the title and never mentioned in the film, the indication was obvious. After premiering, horrified audiences swamped congressmen in a slew of protests leading to the abolishment of the chain gang. Meanwhile, Georgia filed multi-million dollar lawsuits against Warner Bros. Nothing came of it, but producer Jack L. Warner, Director Mervyn LeRoy and star Paul Muni were banned from entering Georgia for years.
Although an intensely personal story (Burns co-wrote whilst on the lam, a nervous wreck throughout the process) of a war hero tricked into robbery and paying ten years in hell, society in total is interrogated with uncomfortable questions.
Can a broken system generate criminals?
Burns is a representation of thousands of soldiers returning from the First World War to an American dream torn to tatters by the Great Depression. Veterans took to demonstrating their frustration by marching on Washington, an act President Hoover met by sending in the military and leaving several dead. Burns represents these soldiers, becoming ever more destitute in fluid montages of aimless wandering. Finally, Burns attempts to pawn his award for bravery, but the proprietor reveals a box already overflowing with shining medals.
Does punishment always fit the crime?
Burn’s fate turns darker when he unintentionally aides a robbery and is sentenced to ten years hard labour. Many other pictures of the time would be quick to simplify the narrative in to comfortable terms of black and white. Our hero is wholesome, but his roommates certainly are not. Whilst awaiting the beginning of a backbreaking day of labour, one chuckles whilst recounting his crime of murdering three innocents with an axe.
Yet endless hours breaking rocks in the sweltering sun, or guards choosing prisoners at random to whip, strikes as the greater evil. Guards feel the system of prison itself is not enough punishment and go to brutal lengths to enforce their own brand of justice. The echoing off screen of whip on flesh played across the terrified faces of prisoners awaiting their turn, rumbles the safety of labelling good and evil.
Burns sickens of the cruel system and escapes, slipping his chains and evading tracker dogs through the swamplands. In an ingenious image parodied ever since, Burns loses his trackers by submerging in the water and using reeds as a snorkel. Finally a free man, the fugitive quickly earns a place as a respectable and successful member of society. But the past never stays dead, and Georgia demands his return.
This begs the third question – Is jail for punishment or reformation?
Punishment is inherently an aspect of prison, though reforming individuals is the ultimate aim. Yet one scene demonstrates the broken prejudice of a jail embodying the maxim ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely’. Burns and fellow inmates discuss how to get out of the chain gang. Evidently, there are three ways; Release, Death and Escape. One convict is performing the former, waving cheerily goodbye to the wardens and convicts alike. As he passes through the front gate, a sentry coldly sneers ‘See you soon’.
I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang is a rare landmark demonstrating the capabilities of cinema to entertain as well as to propagate positive change. The ultimate struggle and raw power of the picture is channeled through Paul Muni, a true actors’ actor, who prepared by extensive research with wardens and meeting Burns himself to, as Muni put it, learn ‘The smell of fear’. As sirens approach, Burns slips away from the woman he loves into shadow. The honest man finally crippled by a broken system into becoming a crook. She desperately cries ‘How do you live?’ Muni hisses ‘I Steal’. The final image is pungent with terror.
Burns is caught between a straight razor and a policeman. The barber and policeman idly chit chat about the recent escaped convict, who they will inevitably get and even have a good description of. With the policeman waiting his turn and his shaw almost finished, Burns will need to think of a way out of this situation quickly and quietly in a sequence of Hitchcockian precision.