Cool Hand Luke (United States, 1967)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"What we have here is… failure to communicate."

In the history of motion pictures, there are a few - but only a few - better-known quotes. Even people who have never heard of Cool Hand Luke know that line (and can ape it with an imperfect Stother Martin accent). For a movie that arrived on the scene in the late '60s, as a whole generation was rebelling against the establishment, this sentiment - that of a failure to communicate - exposed the social climate. Martin's Captain represents an oppressive, authoritarian regime, while Paul Newman's Luke is the nonconformist who never gives up. (The irony is that almost everyone who watches the film, regardless of where in the socio-political spectrum they fall, will identify with Luke.)

Cool Hand Luke uses a seemingly simple and straightforward story to offer a lot of social commentary. The movie has at least three levels, the deepest of which may be the most interesting (more on that later). Cool Hand Luke unfolds in the post World War II South. Luke Jackson, a decorated veteran, finds himself bored with life. So, one night after having too much to drink, he takes a pipe cutter and decapitates several parking meters. This act of social defiance earns him two years on a chain gang. At first, he seems to be a model prisoner - he's quiet and respectful, and keeps to himself. But, when a disagreement with the unofficial leader, Dragline (George Kennedy), leads to a boxing match, Luke refuses to back down, even when he is clearly overmatched and beaten. His stubbornness earns him the respect of even the most hardened of the bunch, including Dragline, who dubs him "Cool Hand Luke" (following his poker victory after bluffing with a dud of a hand).

It isn't long before everyone is looking up to Luke, and, when he decides to attempt an escape, there's no shortage of accomplices. Luke gets out, but he doesn't go far. Soon, he's back in the prison, under closer scrutiny than before. That only fuels his desire to escape again. This time, his break for freedom is more audacious than before, but no more successful. When he is once again under the Captain's thumb, the prison bosses begin a systematic campaign to break Luke once and for all. His independent spirit is something they cannot tolerate. If he will not be broken, he must be killed.

Viewed purely on a narrative level, as nothing more than the story of one man's prison odyssey, Cool Hand Luke works. In fact, the film would go on to spawn a mini-genre of similar motion pictures, the most recent of which was the Eddie Murphy vehicle, Life. The camaraderie between the characters is effective, the storyline never feels artificial or forced (co-writer Donn Pearce based this in part on his first-hand experiences working on a chain gang), and the bittersweet payoff is successfully orchestrated.

Taken to a deeper level, Cool Hand Luke is a metaphor for the social climate in which it germinated. Luke represents that segment of the population who will not submit, no matter how viciously they are beaten. They repeatedly rise up, convinced not only of the rightness of their actions, but that, in the end, they can make a difference. Had this movie been released ten years earlier or ten years later, this aspect would have been lost. But, in the midst of the burgeoning '60s cultural revolution, it's impossible to ignore.

The film is laden with Christian iconography. There are several telling examples, but the most obvious occurs after the egg-eating contest, when Luke's position mimics that of Jesus on the cross. It's not much of a stretch to see him as a Messiah-figure preaching to his disciples (the other prisoners), being persecuted by the authorities, experiencing betrayal by a close friend (Dragline, who turns him over to the police), and sacrificing himself for his principles. In addition, Jesus (at least the Jesus of the Bible) was the ultimate non-conformist. The movement he started eventually became the Establishment, but, during his lifetime, he stood for change. People forget that the same man who urged his followers to turn the other cheek also said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

By the time Cool Hand Luke was released in 1967, Newman was already a star, with films like The Hustler and Hud in his rearview mirror. Cool Hand Luke, along with 1969's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, cemented his reputation. Newman was a perfect choice for Luke - his innate likeability is critical to our acceptance of this somewhat dour, pugnacious character as a hero. As written, Luke could have come across as unpleasant, but not with Newman playing him. The Academy honored the actor with his fourth Oscar nomination (out of 10), although he didn't win (his only victory was for 1987's The Color of Money, which was essentially a Lifetime Achievement Award). Cool Hand Luke's only Academy Award victory was for George Kennedy (Best Supporting Actor). It was also nominated for Best Musical Score and Best Adapted Screenplay.

One can easily defend Kennedy's Oscar. For the prolific actor, who unfortunately is probably best known for starring in Airport, Cool Hand Luke represents a career peak. Dragline is a fully realized character who escapes the "tough guy behind bars" type to reveal an engaging personality. And, when it comes down to it, he proves to be neither as hardened nor as independent as we initially suppose. Strother Martin didn't get any kind of official recognition for his performance as the Captain, but his work has gone down in cinematic lore. Despite being regarded as one of the 1950s and 1960s best character actors, Martin was never acknowledged by the Academy. And Jo Van Fleet (the Best Supporting Actress winner for East of Eden) has a small but memorable part as Luke's dying mother. Her passing represents the movie's turning point. After being unjustly locked in solitary confinement so he won't be tempted to run away for her funeral, Luke becomes determined to escape.

Although the film's overall themes are serious, Cool Hand Luke contains humor. A couple of scenes stand out. The first concerns a young woman (played by Joy Harmon) who enjoys showing off for a bunch of hard-working, sweaty convicts. As they go about their work along the side of the road, she gives her car a wash, making sure to completely soak her flimsy clothing at the same time. Later in the film, Luke claims he can eat 50 eggs in one hour. Bets are taken, and watching Luke endure the ordeal is an amusing experience.

The film's director is Stuart Rosenberg, who came to the project with a wealth of TV experience. Cool Hand Luke would represent the unquestionable pinnacle of his career (subsequent films include The Drowning Pool, The Amityville Horror, and The Pope of Greenwich Village). This is one of those perfect marriages when a director finds the perfect material for his skills. Nothing else on Rosenberg's filmography would hint that he was capable of producing something as impressive as Cool Hand Luke. Yet he doesn't miss a beat. He hits all the highs and the lows. We feel the oppressive heat as the men toil outside. We feel the elation as Luke urges them to tar the road so fast that the guards have trouble keeping up. And we feel anguish as the bosses try to break Luke.

Most people would probably consider Cool Hand Luke a quintessential "guy film" (along with titles like The Dirty Dozen and The Great Escape). Although it's true that there isn't a single major female character in the film, and there is plenty of testosterone on display, such categorization marginalizes a movie that offers depth and substance. Best of all, there's nothing about Cool Hand Luke that seems dated, even 35 years after its initial release. It's as fresh and effective in 2004 as it was in 1967. The only difference is that Newman has since graduated from playing a strapping leading man to entertaining roles as a grandfather. But he's still as cool now as he ever was.

Cool Hand Luke (United States, 1967)

Run Time: 2:07
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1