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Television Reviews : 'Man Who Broke Chains'

October 30, 1987|DON SHIRLEY

"The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains" (on Home Box Office Saturday at 8 p.m., and on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 12, 16 and 20) purports to tell the true story of Robert Elliot Burns, whose ordeal inspired the movie "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang."

Why, then, does the 1932 classic seem so much more authentic, as well as more compelling?

Perhaps Burns' story was simply too incredible. Or perhaps this version, written by Michael Campus and David Wyles from a book by Vincent Godfrey Burns, tried to cover too much territory and chose to omit too many crucial details.

For example, we're supposed to believe that Burns, a returning World War I vet, can't find a job--until after he escapes from prison. Then, on the lam without any identification or references, he suddenly finds all the jobs he needs. He even starts his own magazine--a fashion magazine, though there is no indication that he knows the first thing about fashion or publishing--and becomes one of Chicago's more prominent citizens.

When his ex-wife betrays him to the authorities, he's returned to his Georgia chain gang, where written guarantees of a 45-day term are simply ignored. Had he no lawyers?

Once again, he's forced to escape, and once again, it looks relatively easy. Not only does the film lose credibility with the way it glosses over the aftermath of both escapes, but it also loses suspense.

Val Kilmer plays the Paul Muni role--at first, with a nice combination of vulnerability and toughness. But when his vicissitudes don't age him one iota, the performance quickly loses whatever it had. Sonia Braga is reduced to playing the spurned ex-wife, and Charles Durning and William Sanderson (Larry of "Newhart") get in their licks as sadistic prison keepers.

Daniel Mann directed, but the opening credits note that "after the director completed the director's cut, the final version was supervised by the production company." So blame Journey Entertainment.

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