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Luke Jackson is arrested for unscrewing the tops from a row of parking meters while on a drunken spree in a small Southern town. After the trial, he is sentenced to 2 years of labor on a chain gang. A loner who maintains his aloofness even while working in the blazing sun, Luke soon antagonizes another prisoner, Dragline, the acknowledged leader of the chain gang. The tension between the two men mounts until they finally have a fight in which Dragline beats Luke but is unable to make him give up. Luke's skill at poker, plus his refusal to break under pressure from the sadistic guards, win him the respect of Dragline and the admiration of the other inmates. A short time after Luke receives a farewell visit from his dying mother, a telegram arrives informing him that she is dead. Unable to bear his confinement, Luke saws a hole in the floor under his bunk and escapes; but he is captured, brutally beaten, and put in ankle chains. Undaunted, he breaks out again but is recaptured. Every effort is made to break his will, and he is bludgeoned and overworked until he begs the guards for mercy. Upon seeing Luke betray the myth of the indomitable hero, the other men treat him with contempt. Then, without warning, he escapes in a dump truck, followed by Dragline. Taking refuge in a church, Luke sends Dragline away and attempts to settle his score with God. Partly out of love for Luke, partly out of fear for his own safety, Dragline returns with the guards. Rather than surrender, Luke stands before a window and shouts his defiance until he is silenced by a bullet. The hysterical Dragline is beaten into submission and then returns to the chain gang where he perpetuates the legend of Cool Hand Luke.