Reflections on "Cool Hand Luke" (1967)

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg

Written by Donn Pearce and Frank R Pierson

Starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

The scene is set in the opening few minutes for the conflict, drama and influence that will form the core of interest as they are developed in the course of the film.

We first meet Luke as he calmly, if drunkenly, sets about removing parking metres from a series of evenly spaced and orderly posts and it is clear that this is a nonviolent but determined, if relaxed, expression of his dislike of regulation and the imposition of petty order by society on its citizens. When the police arrive, Luke gives a broad and friendly grin suggesting no malice and also indicating a natural, free spirit and even a degree of innocence or purity.

Next, we see a chain gang labouring in intense heat and under close supervision. In stark contrast to Luke's free spirit, the convicts are totally submissive as they seek permission from their guards to take even the smallest action, such as removing an item of clothing, ending every request with "boss". They appear to have learned and accepted, perhaps under pressure, their place in the prison pecking order, though by extension they may represent those citizens who have succumbed to regulation and authority in society.

When we meet the guards, they are generally faceless and expressionless, offering little or no interaction with their charges beyond giving or denying permission. They may represent anonymous authority whose power and dominance are emphasised by the way they are filmed, with shots from the back of the head or looking up from a position of inferiority.

When Luke and a few other new arrivals turn up, the more experienced inmates set about using rules and manipulating men and situations for their own amusement and effectively establishing a pecking order among the inmates, perhaps in a desire to build their own egos.

Initially, Luke does his time rather quietly but eventually, after a distant but sensually provocative encounter with a local temptress, he suggests to well-established inmate Dragline that he is doing himself and the others no favours by reliving the moment and sharing his thoughts and torment, and Dragline challenges him to a boxing match.

Luke is outmatched by his sizeable opponent but he refuses to concede defeat, perhaps demonstrating Luke's attitude to life and its challenges in general. Each time he is knocked to the ground, he rises to face his adversary again, despite advice from the other convicts to stay down, perhaps reflecting a general attitude to life and authority among them. Luke virtually turns the other cheek and allows Dragline to knock him down again and this has the effect of removing the "sport" from the occasion, with no victory or defeat and reducing it to what it was always intended to be, a beating. The onlookers walk away in disappointment and dismay but this event has revealed Luke's spirit and strength, and incites respect and admiration for Luke, and acceptance.

Two or three more events instil and extend Luke's influence on his fellow inmates.

He wins a game of cards with a very poor hand but bluffs his way to success, almost in an act of faith and another refusal to concede, and he gains his nickname in the process, a sure sign of belonging and acceptance.

He lends purpose and excitement to the convicts' lives by accepting a challenge to eat 50 boiled eggs. The preparation, support and associated betting surrounding this event do much to unite and uplift the spirits of the convicts who are no longer rule-bound and keen to build themselves up at the expense of others.

This injection of spirit and unity culminates in a display of determination and energy, bordering on defiance, when the men are instructed to resurface a lengthy stretch of road, a back-breaking and time-consuming task. They complete the work in record time as a result of Luke's inspiration and high-spirited challenge to take on and exceed the expectations of the warden and guards. In so doing, the convicts complete the job on their own terms and are elated by the sense of success, control and freedom they experience. Of course, the guards are left anxious as, effectively, they lose control of the situation though their prisoners have done only what was asked of them, but they set the pace and did not behave as if this was a punishment. It appears that freedom can be achieved through an attitude of mind.

By now, Luke has achieved virtual hero status and he becomes an essential element in the convict community. He is consulted regularly on various aspects of prison life and he even adopts a certain familiarity with the guards who respond in kind. Things seem to be going relatively smoothly as Luke's influence has raised the spirits of all concerned, fostering a brighter and more positive outlook.

Luke's mother visits him and we are given some insight into his upbringing. It appears his father was never around though he bears his father no ill will, and Luke clearly loves his mother who has always admired Luke's spirit and winning ways, to the extent that she declares she has always favoured him above his brother. She informs Luke she is dying and will leave her worldly goods to his brother by way of compensation for her favouritism and preference. Luke is unperturbed by this apparent slight as he clearly values his mother's love and admiration above mere possessions.

The turning point in the film and the direction it and Luke take comes with the death of Luke's mother, or rather the actions of the warden and guards in response to news of her death. Luke is incarcerated in "the box", a sort of isolated and cramped punishment cell, to ensure he makes no attempt to escape and attend her funeral. This lack of compassion and understanding is in sharp contrast with the easy-going acceptance of position and authority, and the humanity Luke has fostered since his arrival and he tells the guard that stating he is doing his job does not make it right.

Luke may always have been ready to challenge the status quo and identify inconsistencies or injustices, but he has shown willing, while in prison, to compromise and accept his punishment, but this blatant injustice and inhumanity pushes him over the edge and he is no longer willing to play the game.

Luke sets out to escape and does so with the connivance and collaboration of his fellow inmates. They almost seem to live their lives vicariously through Luke and his exploits, and his daring, panache and style assure his hero status in their eyes.

Although recaptured, he escapes again, duping the guards and further building his standing. He even manages to send a photo of himself with two attractive young ladies to Dragline and this image cements Luke's iconic status for the others who, like many, seem to need someone or something greater than themselves to believe in, if only to give them hope as they face difficult or insurmountable circumstances.

Eventually captured once again, Luke is punished by having to repeatedly dig a grave-shaped ditch and refill it until he is utterly exhausted and is willing to capitulate and concede to the warden’s demands. Clearly, the warden and guards seek to destroy his image and status by publicly destroying the man while Luke's friends sing spiritual songs in an effort to maintain his morale. He is knocked into what is effectively a grave and this may be intended to represent the death of his defiance. He arises a broken and weakened man willing to accept whatever conditions are demanded if it means he can stop digging.

As he faces his fellow convicts, despondent and physically and emotionally exhausted, Luke rejects his hero status and the pressure that entails by stating that he has failed and the image he sent during his escape was faked. Dreadfully disheartened and disappointed, they lose heart as they lose faith in their hero. One convict symbolically tears up the image and it is stashed under a mattress.

In one final daring, intelligent and stylish bid to escape, Luke steals a truck while on a work detail and Dragline, carried away by excitement and inspiration, jumps on as well. However, Luke seems to be aware he will not make it, separates from Dragline and heads to a town church where he proceeds to pray to and address God.

This is the culmination of a whole series of Christian images, including the way he lies when he is placed on a table, suggesting Luke may be viewed as something of a Christ figure.

He is a pure-hearted loner who has challenged, without violence, the political and moral status quo, has shown humanity, turned the other cheek and lifted the spirits of all those around him. His family background is familiar and he was rejected by those he helped, and now Dragline effectively acts as Judas as he draws the authorities to Luke, albeit believing he is actually doing Luke a favour.

In the church, Luke talks to God and says he can't understand the path He has chosen for him, and asks for a sign whereupon Dragline appears. In the end, Luke is fatally wounded and Dragline turns on the authorities, leading to further punishment, yet Dragline goes on to talk vividly about his friend's exploits and character, almost like a disciple. In the final scenes, the work party sets about its work but all are reasonably positive and inspired. Luke may have died but his sacrifice (for he knew things would not turn out well for him) has led to a change of attitude. Spiritual freedom has been achieved even if the same physical restraints are still in place.

As we pull away from the work party, a crossroads forming a cross comes into view, and the torn image of Luke with his lady friends also appears, showing the same cross where the photo has been repaired...

The script and direction of this excellent film maintain pace and engagement throughout, though the film really takes off in the second half with Luke's unjust imprisonment in the box. All the characters are nicely fleshed out and played but Paul Newman and George Kennedy certainly deserve particular credit and praise.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk

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