Based on an autobiographical story by Robert E. Burns, this powerful prison film was in theaters while Burns was still a fugitive.
Returning home after doing engineering work for the army in the world war, James Allen (Paul Muni) is not content with his old job in the shoe factory. He finds construction work but is soon laid off; he travels around the country seeking work but is unable even to pawn his war medal. As he is very hungry, Jim goes with Pete (Preston Foster) to get a hamburger. Pete pulls out a gun and tells Jim to get the money out of the register. Jim takes the $5; but the police arrive. Pete shoots at the police, and they kill him; Jim is caught trying to run away. Jim is sentenced to ten years hard labor. He is chained in the barracks, wears a striped uniform, and is given "grease, pig fat, and sorghum" for breakfast. They go to work before dawn, break rocks with sledge hammers, and return at 8:20. Jim is whipped for one word of criticism. He prepares to escape, and a friend gives him $7 and an address. A black man bends his shackles with the sledge. On a bathroom break Jim slips off the shackles and runs away, followed by hounds and men with rifles. He grabs some clothes off a line and changes. He takes a reed to breathe and hides underwater. In the city he buys a new suit and gets a shave, learning that the police are guarding the depot and the roads. He buys a train ticket and gets on while the police are chasing a hobo.
Jim goes to Chicago and works as Allen James, working his way up to foreman, surveyor, and eventually superintendent. He rents a room from Marie (Glenda Farrell). He says he does not love her, and she complains while he is trying to study. Learning of his past in a letter, she threatens to tell on him unless he marries her. He does so, but Marie is overdrawing his account and dating other men. Jim becomes interested in Helen (Helen Vinson) and asks Marie for a divorce. They quarrel, and she turns him in. While waiting for extradition, Jim exposes the chain gangs to the press. The state offers to pardon him after he serves 90 days if he will return voluntarily. Jim talks to Helen and decides to go back. He pays the state's expenses and a lawyer, but he is put back on a chain gang. His minister brother speaks for him, but the commission refuses to consider pardoning him until he has served a year; then his case is suspended indefinitely. Jim escapes on a truck; the other prisoner is shot but dynamites the road before he dies. Jim breaks his chain and dynamites a bridge. After being a fugitive for a year he finds Helen to say good-bye, because he has to keep moving. When she asks him how he lives, he replies, "I steal."
Although Jim was not completely innocent, his punishment was way out of proportion to his crime. After the state authorities lied to him, he was correct in saying they are worse criminals. In spite of the barbarous prison conditions, the fellowship of the inmates kept humanity alive for most. This film is an important criticism of southern penal atrocities.