COOL HAND LUKE: The Essentials
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Lucas Jackson is arrested for destroying several parking meters late one night while drunk in a small Southern town and sentenced to hard labor on a chain gang. A rebel with little respect for authority--and more guts than good sense--he gains the respect of his initially hostile fellow inmates by his frequent escape attempts and refusal to knuckle under to harsh treatment. They also enjoy his fearless behavior in the face of a bet or dare, which earns him the moniker "Cool Hand Luke." But even Luke has his limits, and after enduring relentless punishment, he begins to realize how badly the deck is stacked against him and questions if he can take much more.
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Producer: Gordon Carroll
Screenplay: Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson
Cinematography: Conrad Hall
Editor: Sam O'Steen
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cast: Paul Newman (Luke), George Kennedy (Dragline), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Strother Martin (Captain), Jo Van Fleet (Arletta), Robert Drivas (Loudmouth Steve), Clifton James (Carr), Lou Antonio (Koko), Luke Askew (Boss Paul Hunnicut), Morgan Woodward (Boss Godfrey), Richard Davalos (Blind Dick), Dennis Hopper (Babalugats), John McLiam (Boss Keen), Harry Dean Stanton (Edgar 'Tramp' Potter).
C-127m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
Why COOL HAND LUKE is Essential
Back in the 1960s, you couldn't go wrong producing music, literature, and drama about individuals at odds with society, or free spirits bucking unjust and unreasonable authority. It was also a pretty safe bet playing to everyone's worst notions of what the South was really like, with all its supposed ignorance, poverty, brutality, and perversion. It also didn't hurt to give your story a strong whiff of allegory, adding notes of spiritual grace and heroism. In all these respects, Cool Hand Luke is a quintessential film of its time, a progenitor of such characteristic works as Easy Rider (1969) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (released in 1975 but based on a 1962 novel by 60s icon Ken Kesey).
The film's protagonist is not a recognizable figure of the era's counter-culture; he's no free-love hippie or dedicated anti-war activist, yet younger audiences were drawn to his rebellious nature. In fact, the script's most famous line, "What we have here is failure to communicate," seemed to speak to the growing divide between generations, races, and political philosophies of the decade. Luke is not a hero in any conventional sense; he isn't fighting for a cause, and he's no seeker of truth or justice. Although his punishment is disproportionate to his crime, he has, in fact, been sentenced as anyone would be for breaking the law, not out of hunger or other form of either desperation or conviction but merely for a capricious, adolescent act of vandalism. Cool Hand Luke is no social-reform exposé like I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932).
Luke has no particular agenda or set of beliefs that put him at odds with the rest of the world beyond his status, which remains unexplained other than he's simply one who doesn't "fit in." We're meant to accept him from the beginning as an iconic outsider and loner, and if that's not enough to root for him, the filmmakers stack the deck in his favor by portraying his jailers as almost unanimously sadistic and unsympathetic while portraying him in the most positive light and his fellow convicts as by and large a rather likable bunch. The glow in which Luke is bathed quickly becomes a virtual halo as director Stuart Rosenberg (whose only previous feature, Question 7 (1961), was an obscure drama about Christian persecution under Soviet rule) peppers the film with obvious Christ symbolism that irked many reviewers.
So what made Cool Hand Luke succeed and what brings viewers back to it decades later? The script certainly goes a long way toward explaining the appeal. Frank Pierson took Donn Pearce's true-life novel (and subsequent first-draft screenplay) about his own experiences of harsh life on a chain gang and broadened it, lightening it up without losing any of the brutality. There is comedy (the famous egg-eating sequence), pathos (Luke's last meeting with his dying mother, beautifully rendered by Jo Van Fleet), even a brief moment of sex (the now-clichéd car wash scene). More notable, however, are the writers' colorful verbiage--the falsely sensitive pontificating of the prison camp's captain (Strother Martin, in a role that made him famous after nearly 20 years of character parts) or the affectionate, even homoerotic, descriptions of Luke from the mouth of alpha convict Dragline (George Kennedy, the film's other breakout performance and an Oscar® winner). Some of the dialogue has a kind of rough poetry, such as the laying down of rules by the barracks boss Carr, a monologue that wouldn't be entirely out of place in a David Mamet work.
There are also aspects of the picture that come from earlier cinematic times, predating the anti-authoritarian bent of the 1960s, accounting for its popularity among more than just youth audiences. In the way it mixes types, rather than fully fleshed characters, among the incarcerated men, in an odd camaraderie that transcends any of their hostility and differences, and in the isolation punishment of "The Box," Cool Hand Luke strongly recalls the war films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963). The comparison to the latter film is even more striking in the sense of fun and adventure that imbues Luke's repeated escapes and recaptures and the hero worship they engender among the convicts. It's a winning formula from an earlier more "heroic" genre brought into an essentially pessimistic story of aimless defiance.
Ultimately, however, what makes Cool Hand Luke work is its star. Odd to consider that Jack Lemmon, whose company produced the picture, might have taken the role so indelibly identified today with Paul Newman. Coming off a string of hits that made him one of the top anti-hero figures of the decade--all of them, curiously, beginning with the letter H (The Hustler, 1961; Hud, 1963; Harper (1966); and Hombre, 1967)--Newman slid effortlessly into Luke's skin, a role that seemed tailor-made for him. Rosenberg called the character "The perfect existential hero," and Newman described him as "the ultimate non-conformist and rebel...a free agent." Today, Luke seems more a victim of his own self-ostracism, even something of a masochist. But in Newman's hands, he becomes an immensely appealing figure. Partly, that's a function of the actor's physical attributes: the legendary blue eyes, the devilish smile, the lean, athletic physique, all of which made him exactly the wrong choice for the role in author Pearce's eyes. Then, there is the combination of toughness, charm, and world-weariness he brought to the character. It would become arguably the signature role of Newman's career, and the obvious delight he took in playing Luke breaks through even the most dated and overdone aspects of the film to make Cool Hand Luke, in the minds of its many admirers, both fondly remembered and worth revisiting.
by Rob Nixon