During the opening ten minutes of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang I really wondered why I was even watching it. The acting was terrible. It does improve, however, once the family scenes end, turning out to be quite an entertaining and gripping film. It is grossly overrated, though…

Social justice. The issue of chain gangs in the southern United States was very much alive at the time the film was made because of the case of Robert Elliott Burns, a man who had twice escaped such a gang. In the interlude between stints in prison he had become a respected member of Chicago society off the back of his success in property and as a magazine publisher. The film is based on a book he wrote about his experiences (“I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!”). Like the character in the film he was sentenced to six to ten years of hard labour. Unlike the film, he actually did wilfully commit a robbery, with two other accomplices. The ringleader was sentenced to fifty years but himself and the other robber got a more lenient sentence. According to Burns, they only got $5.80 in the robbery. It puzzles me as to why this is often held up as significant. Their intent was to commit the crime and they’d have taken hundreds or thousands of dollars if they could have gotten it. Six to ten years hard labour does seem severe for a robbery… unless it was an aggravated one. Such details are thin on the ground. It was the punishment at the time and the man did do the crime. Burns’ widely-publicised case, his book and the film contributed to efforts to discontinue the use of chain gangs. This leads me to my main criticism of the film: while it is held up as a landmark, even “great” film for highlighting a serious social issue, it plays loose with the facts and misleads the public as to what happened. Films based on true stories often bear much less resemblance to reality, but in this case, through its lies, the film becomes propaganda.

So in reality, the man did the crime. The film depicts him as an innocent victim. Would public sympathy have been the same had they been pushing for the rights of those who were actually criminals? In my mind had he been innocent, the miscarriage of justice would have been the result of the trial. Seeing as Burns’ case was well-known before the film and his book did not misrepresent him as innocent it’s difficult to know just what impact the film had. I do think that the harsh conditions and sentence were overly-severe if it was for a non-violent robbery so there was reason enough to push for change regardless. Perhaps there was an even greater argument for change if the story showed him as guilty of his crime (assuming that most inmates were guilty)? This would mean that the justice system was more fundamentally flawed than a single miscarriage of justice might suggest. The public at large has greater sympathy for the innocent, however.

A lot of the details of the film are surprisingly close to reality:

  • He did fight in the First World War but may not have been decorated.
  • His escape was aided by another prisoner who damaged his shackles and he removed them days later when on his break.
  • He did meet and marry the landlady of the boarding house in which he was staying. She had bankrolled his success in property and publishing a magazine with her savings (the film shows her as a scrounger and blackmailer from the start). This is another serious change as it further manipulates the audience’s feelings for the central character. Would she have bankrolled his success if she was blackmailing him? Why blackmail him at all? Can Burns’ account in the book even be trusted? Something doesn’t add up…
  • He did meet a younger woman (sixteen years younger). His wife agreed to divorce him, but while he claimed that she informed on him, she denied it. Again, there’s a possible alteration of the facts (although this time the film agrees with the book).

The following details were considerably different:

  • Burns did not choose to return to Georgia – he lost the extradition hearing and had no choice but to return.
  • There was never any promise of a pardon – not in ninety days nor a year. The fact here was that Burns would have to wait a year before he could apply for parole. After many failed attempts he escaped again and wrote the book.

So, what’s my verdict on I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang? Viewed simply as entertainment it’s worth a look but it is quite rough around the edges and far from essential. As an artistic work pushing for social change it’s reprehensible. That’s not only my view, but the view of the film itself. It holds up the “lies” of the Georgian authorities about a promised pardon as being beneath contempt. Chain gangs may have been brutal and worth scrapping anyway, but the pursuit of social justice with deliberately doctored propaganda like this is not the way to do it. Sometimes telling a pack of lies to support your cause backfires – just ask Michael Moore. I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is perhaps worth contemporary study as propaganda in a world where social and conventional media are increasingly used to misrepresent the truth and push the social change agenda of those so righteous that the truth need not bother them. Can anyone think of past examples where upstanding, holier-than-thou pillars of the community being an insincere pack of liars caused disaster?

 

Most of my information on the Robert E. Burns case was gleaned from this account:
https://archive.org/stream/TrueDetective0730/TrueDetective07-30#page/n40/mode/1up
It’s more than a little overwrought but it is pro-Burns… and its details don’t align with those of the film.

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