skip navigation
The Essentials - March 2011
Remind Me
suppliedTitle,Cool Hand Luke

Pop Culture 101: COOL HAND LUKE

People continue to use the most famous line in Cool Hand Luke to this day, even if they don't always remember where it came from. "What we have here is failure to communicate," uttered by the evil Captain (Strother Martin) was credited for a time to Donn Pearce, author of the book on which the film is based. But Pearce never wrote the line in his novel; it was added by screenwriter Frank Pierson. Recently, citations have been corrected giving Pierson credit for the line. There are actually two versions of the quote, one with the article "a" before failure (uttered by Luke toward the end of the film) and the one without, spoken by the Captain. When people quote it today, it is usually with the article. The phrase is #11 on the American Film Institute's list of great movie quotes.

"What we have here is (a) failure to communicate" has also been used in the movies Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), Waterworld (1995, spoken by Dennis Hopper, who has a bit role in Cool Hand Luke), Major Payne (1995), Halloween (2007), and on the TV show Californication.

The rock band Guns N' Roses used the line in two songs, 1990's "Civil War" and in 2008 in "Madagascar."

The famous quote has often been attributed to President Lyndon Johnson, and used against him in 60s counter-culture, particularly by the anti-war movement, but Frank Pierson, the screenplay's co-writer, says the line just came to him. Donn Pearce, who wrote the novel and co-wrote the script, objected to it as being too intellectual coming from the Captain's mouth. There was some debate about it, but the film's creators finally decided to keep it in.

An edited version of one of the musical cues from the film, heard in the sequence when the prisoners are tarring the dirt road, turned up later as a music theme on the news programs of many television stations. It was first used on New York's WABC-TV "Eyewitness News" broadcast, then picked up by other ABC programs. Other uses, some of them continuing to the present, include several news programs in Australia.

Cool Hand Luke's is the name of a chain of steakhouses in California and Idaho with a Western theme ("hungry buckaroo") that has nothing to do with the movie.

A gun shop in Buckport, Maine, is called Cool Hand Luke's Firearms.

The title has been applied in various circumstances to noteworthy people named Luke, particularly sports stars, such as English footballer Luke Daniels.

Cool Hand Luke has had some influence on other movies in the prison genre, such as Papillon (1973) and The Shawshank Redemption (1994). The influence can be seen most significantly in the Eddie Murphy film Life (1999), which contains a direct homage to the fight scene between Paul Newman and George Kennedy.

Life on a chain gang has been the setting for several notable films, whether used for humorous effect, as in Woody Allen's Take the Money and Run(1969) and the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), or as social commentary in the Depression drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and the 1940s comedy Sullivan's Travels (1941).

At Dennis Hopper's invitation, avant garde filmmaker Bruce Conner shot some footage of the cast clearing brush from the roadside under a blisteringly hot sun. The resulting film, Luke (1967), captured on 8mm and edited entirely in camera, is a haunting slow-motion study of how a film is made, with an electronic score by Patrick Gleeson.

The seductive car wash scene, with the voluptuous, scantily clad girl rubbing her body all over the wet vehicle, has been copied dozens of times over, most recently by Jessica Simpson in the video for the song "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'" from the film The Dukes of Hazard (2005).

by Rob Nixon



Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Don't Forget Brad Dexter - 4/27
3 Movies

This burly, handsome supporting player (and occasional lead) was often cast as villainous or menacing types in a variety of films....more

TCM Shopping
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • In this classic Southern prison drama, social... more info
  • $15.79
  • Regularly $19.98
  • Add to cart
  • Cool Hand Luke
  • In this classic Southern prison drama, social... more info
  • $15.79
  • Regularly $19.98
  • Add to cart
  • Love Me Tonight
  • Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald sing... more info
  • $19.95
  • Regularly $19.98
  • Add to cart
  • Hannah and Her Sisters
  • Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow,... more info
  • $9.95
  • Regularly $14.98
  • Add to cart