Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke – 1967

Director – Stuart Rosenberg

Starring – Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Harry Dean Stanton, and Strother Martin

Combining religious imagery, southern drawl, male bonding, and a healthy dash of exuberance, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke has become more than the small story of a man’s stint in the clink, it has transcended its reach and become a meditation on the importance (or the lack of) of authority for authority’s sake.  Paul Newman, arguably one of the most iconic actors of his time, perfectly personifies independence, and the idea of anti-establishment.

The story deals with capture and incarceration of the titular, Luke, and his relationships with his fellow inmates, the guards that drive them, and with the bureaucratic warden who oversees everything in the prison.  In the first 5 minutes of the film, we see Luke cutting the heads off of parking meters, being caught, and sentenced to 2 years in prison.  While he is doing something technically wrong, the 2 year sentence seems a bit of an over-reaction to the weight of the crime.

Once in prison, Luke spends his time testing the boundaries set by both the inmates as well as those set by the guards.  Eventually bonds begin to form, and a precident is set as the other inmates begin looking up to Luke.  It is in this part of the film that the main relationship, that of Luke and George Kennedy’s Dragline, is solidified.  The two men start off as rivals; Luke is simply pushing buttons, a behavior that Dragline sees as threatening to his authority among the other inmates.  Over time, the men become friends, Dragline eventually becoming Luke’s biggest advocate.

There are many different theories on the internet about what the different factions represented in this movie represent.  There is quite a bit of religious iconography that appears in the composition of the film, and while that is a perfectly valid interpretation, I fell more in line with the societal similarities.  To start with, Luke.  He gets his own group because he is really a free radical.  He doesn’t follow any one set of guidelines despite what anyone else tries to force him to do.  Luke disrupts the set in stone flow established by the system (the Warden), and maintained by the guards.  He inspires change, and therefore straddles the line between respected and feared. 

Next we have the prisoners.  These men represent society, everyday people with faults and flaws.  Each has a place, a role in the story, and each seems to run on a set path (ones that eventually get thrown off by the arrival of Luke).  Despite the fact that each these men are convicted prisoners, all of them are relatable, and the majority of them are downright familiar, almost good.  They represent all mankind.  The guards are an obvious stand in for the law, specifically the police.  These men keep the peace, and enforce the will of the bureaucracy, often utilizing fear, threat of violence and force (most personified by the anonymous and imposing “man with no eyes”). 

Finally, we have the warden.  In the story, the warden is one man, yet he represents a system of rule, or government that is infinitely larger than one man.  Since this system is most disrupted by the arrival of Luke, the warden is the most afraid of him.   What Luke represents is dependant upon which group you are from.

Despite it’s rather serious themes, Cool Hand Luke remains a rather jovial film, thanks in no small part to Newman’s performance as the eminently likable, Luke.  Newman and George Kennedy were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, with Kennedy taking home the statue for Best Supporting Actor.  Balancing out the weight and likability of the main characters is Strother Martin as the warden.  His measured performance never travels too far into the cartoon villain territory, yet it’s just strong enough to get the proper reaction.  Cool Hand Luke is another film that is populated with famous faces before they were famous, including Harry Dean Stanton, and Dennis Hopper. 

The film looks like a sweltering hot summer feels, sticky sweaty clothes and all.  The era, and the setting of the film are perfectly evoked in the cinematography, with sunbleached days and hot, dark nights. 

I am coming more and more to believe that Paul Newman was one of the industry’s best actors that never got the full recognition he deserved.  I am writing this (in part) to commemorate his birthday (01/27/2010).  So belated happy birthday to the late Mr. Newman!  What we have here, is a failure to communicate!  Well…I hope that’s not the case, anyway.

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9 thoughts on “Cool Hand Luke (1967)

  1. Pingback: 1001 Movies – The Complete List « 1001 Movies I Must Comment On Before I Die!

  2. Wow. And all this time I thought it was just about the pecking order of chain-gangs. Quite an interesting look at one of my favorite films (I know I seem to be overusing that title). Not sure that I see the religious aspects. While I recognize the crucifixion pose after the hard-boiled egg wager I really though of it as more of an iconic image than a spiritual one.
    Maybe an omen of an impending martyr’s end.

    I remember George Kennedy’s stint in television, was my first experience with him and I wasn’t really a big fan, but when I reached back to see his performances in this and “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” my attitude changed.

    Sometimes nothin’ can be a really cool hand.

    Was this your first viewing of “Cool Hand Luke”?

    • I’ve read a few things that mention the fact that Luke is representative of Jesus, and while there are a number of images and elements that support this (the crucifixtion pose you mentioned, him sacrificing himself, Dragline’s Judas-like turn, and a couple of instances of halo-esque imagery behind Newman’s head), it isn’t consistent enough to be more than a passing, though interesting, thought on the film.

      I first saw George Kennedy in one of my all time favorite films, Charade, which if you haven’t seen you definitely should rent it!

      This was my first viewing of it. I’m glad I saw it when I did, too, because I have developed more and more of a fondness for films of this era in the last few years. If I had seen it earlier in my life, I may have written it off as slow, or uninteresting.

  3. This one’s long been a staple on my Top 100 list, mainly because the movie gets better with every repeat viewing. But I may be one of the few people who thinks Luke is, well, kind of an idiot — headstrong, a true rebel without a cause, or maybe a rebel with a cause that’s so cryptic he may as well not have one at all. I also see him as an antihero for these reasons.

    • He doesn’t seem to have much reason for the things that he does. He seems to do them just to stir the pot, and anger those in charge. While there is a certain amount of this I can understand (not letting someone or some group with arbitrary authority operate unchecked or unchallenged, or something along those lines), there is an equal portion of this behavior that seems reckless and self destructive.

      I wonder how much of this came out of the general feeling of the time when it was made. The war in Vietnam was in full swing, the civil rights movement was changing the landscape at home, and it wasn’t so long before that the president had been shot and killed in office. Some of it might have been raging against the machine just to be heard.

      Either way, I think the film in general and the character of Luke specifically was a vehicle for the author’s discontent.

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  5. I think one of the reasons for the popularity of this movie was its timing during the 1960s when there was a populist rebellion (represented by Luke) against authority (represented by Dragline).

    Of course, it also didn’t hurt that this movie had one of THE most memorable movie quotes of all time; “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

    • The sixties was most certainly an influential and revolutionary time for cinema (as well as a number of other areas of human civilization). The films coming out in the 60’s challenged the ideals and content of the films of the 50’s, and eventually gave birth to the explosion that was the 70’s.

      I wonder if it would still have the same power and resonance if it had come out in the 80’s or if it would have been a failure.

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