I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang is an American Pre-Code crime-drama film directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring Paul Muni as a wrongfully convicted convict on a chain gang who escapes to Chicago. It was released in November 10, 1932. The film received positive reviews and three Academy Award nominations.
The film was written by Howard J. Green and Brown Holmes from Robert Elliott Burns's autobiography of a similar name "I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang!" serialised in the True Detective magazine. The true life story was later recreated in the television movie, The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains (1987) starring Val Kilmer.
In 1991, this film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Sergeant James Allen (Muni) returns to civilian life after World War I, but his war experience makes him restless. His family feels he should be grateful for a tedious job as an office clerk, and when he announces that he wants to become an engineer, they react with outrage. He leaves home to find work on any sort of project, but unskilled labor is plentiful and it is hard for him to find a job. Wandering and sinking into poverty, he accidentally becomes caught up in a robbery and is sentenced to 10 years on a brutal Southern chain gang.
He escapes and makes his way to Chicago, where he becomes a success in the construction business. He becomes involved with the proprietor of his boardinghouse, Marie Woods (Glenda Farrell), who discovers his secret and blackmails him into an unhappy marriage. He then meets and falls in love with Helen (Helen Vinson). When he asks his wife for a divorce, she betrays him to the authorities. He is offered a pardon if he will turn himself in; Allen accepts, only to find that it was just a ruse. He escapes once again.
In the end, Allen visits Helen in the shadows on the street and tells her he is leaving forever. She asks, "Can't you tell me where you're going? Will you write? Do you need any money?" James repeatedly shakes his head in answer as he backs away. Finally, Helen says, "But you must, Jim. How do you live?" James' face is barely seen in the surrounding darkness, and he replies, "I steal," as he backs into the black.