One of the toughest movies ever made, an uncompromising and frightening film that lays bare the inhuman conditions of the penal system in post-WWI Georgia.
Based on a collection of writings by Robert Elliot Burns, who escaped from a chain gang to become a successful magazine editor but lived with the continual threat of being recaptured, the film tells the story of James Allen (Paul Muni), who is framed for the robbery of a hamburger stand and sentenced to ten years' hard labor. Every ounce of his strength and dignity is stripped away until he resolves to escape.
The reputation of socially conscious director Mervyn LeRoy is identified perhaps more with this film than with any other. Here the director of LITTLE CAESAR and THEY WON'T FORGET (which explored the horrors of lynching) pulls no punches, with every scene of I AM A FUGITIVE an expression of social outrage. Much of the film's story and technique would influence later prison movies, especially those dealing with prison farm systems. The escape through the swamps was duplicated by Edward G. Robinson in BLACKMAIL; the escape by truck was employed by Paul Newman in COOL HAND LUKE. Muni's captivating performance marked one of the highlights of his career.
Though the film specifically excluded the word "Georgia" from its title and never mentioned the state in the entire film, the indictment of that state's cruel chain-gang system was clear. The film was banned in Georgia and the state filed a libel suit against the studio. Two prison wardens in Georgia also filed unsuccessful million-dollar suits against Warner Brothers. Georgia was also relentless in its attempts to recapture Burns, whom Warner Bros. asked to travel to Hollywood to serve as an advisor on the project. Burns smuggled himself into Los Angeles using an assumed name and, reportedly, not only suggested ideas for the script but helped write dialogue before nervously fleeing after a few weeks. His book was remade in 1987 as a television movie called The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains, starring Val Kilmer. leave a comment