Capsule Review: I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang

Written by Michael Clawson

90/100

A soldier returns from WWI and searches for satisfying work, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time lands him in a chain gang, where he suffers through grueling work and miserable treatment day after day before finally making a daring escape. As a wanted man, he runs, narrowly avoiding the law’s clutches at several turns, and slowly finds himself on his way to the life he dreamed of, but a cruel and unjust system turns out to not be done with him yet.

A suspenseful and involving drama that doubles as an indictment of the inhumanity in the penal system it depicts, it boasts efficient storytelling by Mervyn LeRoy, and a solid, sympathetic performance by Paul Muni. More than a few sequences thrill, especially our protagonist’s nerve-wracking escape from the prison camp, and his nearly being caught on multiple occasions as he tries to skip town. Subtle formal touches stand out too, like a sideways tracking shot that passes over the faces of demoralized inmates as they listen to a man being whipped, or the sounds of hammers endlessly smacking rocks or railroad ties. Not to mention a powerful finish, which shows Muni just briefly emerging from darkness to say goodbye to a lover, before retreating back into it.

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang Trailer

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent and purchase digitally.