When I was a kid I back in the 60’s, I’d peruse the television listings every Sunday morning in the paper. I wanted to see what movies were being telecast that week. Before the funnies, church, or bacon and eggs, I would count the number of stars listed after each title. Those stars were my sextant, my trusty guide to great films. Such was the life of a ten-year old movie freak.
The stars rarely lied, but, when I saw “Four” for the first time next to a title I didn’t recognize, I was a little skeptical. “I AM A FUGITIVE (FROM A CHAIN GANG)” set me straight in a profound way. This is the first film I saw where a single performance touched me personally. The first film that unearthed empathy, then left me in agony. The first film that changed my movie-watching and my life, forever. And believe me, I wasn’t a sheltered child. My brother and I saw JFK speak a week before he was shot. My father (God bless him) told us at a young age about the Holocaust and the tragic effects of World War II on millions of innocent people. He made us watch news reports on the riots in Selma. Vietnam was on the nightly news. As an altar boy I had served at several funerals. I witnessed the pain of loss. I was made aware that horrible things happen to good people.
Yet, it was this film, that I viewed alone late on a Saturday night, that schooled me to the harshness of cold reality. I now understood the cruelty that fate could bestow on one man. The permanent realization that life was unfair had been solidified. It scared me more than any monster movie ever had, or would. It’s the true story of Robert Elliot Burns (played by the magnificent Paul Muni) falsely accused of a crime and sentenced to hard labor on an Alabama chain gang. The unflinching direction by Mervyn Leroy and screenplay by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes from Burn’s autobiography transcends mere movie making.
Upon its release, it contributed to extensive changes in the American penal system and ended harsh forced labor for inmates. By evoking personal emotion and a nationwide outcry, “I AM A FUGITIVE (FROM A CHAIN GANG)” demonstrated the power of great filmmaking. I didn’t know it was a true story when I saw it so many years ago. It didn’t matter. Warner Brothers had made it all too real in glorious black and white with Vitaphone sound.
I walked around in a bit of a daze for a while. In shock, perhaps, by one of the most powerful endings to a movie I had ever seen. I kept on my toes. Viewing the world and my days to come with a growing appreciation for life, but, always with a wary eye. “I AM A FUGITIVE (FROM A CHAIN GANG)” is available on DVD. It also plays on TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES.