Filmsite Movie Review
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
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Background

Cool Hand Luke (1967) is the moving character study of a non-conformist, anti-hero loner who bullheadedly resists authority and the Establishment. One of the film's posters carried a tagline related to the character's rebelliousness: "The man...and the motion picture that simply do not conform." With this vivid film, director Stuart Rosenberg made one of the key films of the 1960s, a decade in which protest against established powers was a key theme. One line of the film's dialogue from Strother Martin is often quoted: "What we've got here is...failure to communicate."

This superb, crowd-pleasing film was based upon a screenplay co-authored by ex-convict Donn Pearce (and Frank R. Pierson), from Pearce's own novel of the same name. The main character Luke (played by Paul Newman) was inspired by real-life convicted safecracker Donald Graham Garrison. Telly Savalas was originally considered for the role, and Bette Davis was also considered for the part of Luke's mother. The chain-gang prison film (e.g., I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)) has a long history in American films, and this one also provided entertaining performances, especially with Paul Newman in one of his best roles as masochistic Luke, after playing similar anti-heroes in The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963). Other stars who played convicts in the chain gang in smaller roles included Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Ralph Waite, Wayne Rogers, Joe Don Baker, and Anthony Zerbe.

Rich religious symbolism, references and imagery are deeply embedded within the narrative, with some critics arguing that Luke represents a modern-day, messianic Christ figure who ministers to a group of disciples and refuses to give up under oppression. The film's theme - of an outsider-protagonist who transforms the occupants of a Southern chain gang institution and tragically sacrifices himself at the end - resembles the anti-hero character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).

The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Actor (Paul Newman, who lost to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (1967)), Best Supporting Actor (George Kennedy in a break-out role), Best Adapted Screenplay (Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson), and Best Original Music Score (Lalo Schifrin) and won only for Best Supporting Actor.

The Story

In the opening scene, set in the South in 1948 [the film was shot on location in Stockton, California], Lucas "Luke" Jackson (Paul Newman) is arrested for the minor offenses of being drunk and destroying two long rows of parking meters in a defiant act of rebellion. As he lazily cuts off the heads of the meters with a pipe cutter, the red, two-hour time limit VIOLATION warning pops up, foreshadowing his own imminent arrest. Luke is detached toward police when they arrive at the scene and arrest him for social defiance - under a streetlight's glare, he laughs at them with a big grin. The next scene, playing under the credits, is of the typical, grueling road work forced upon prisoners - an imprisonment which reflects the authentic horrors of life on a chain gang in a Southern prison.

The vehicle bringing Luke and three other prisoners to a correctional Southern prison is reflected in the mirror-lens sunglasses of one of the guards. In a lineup in front of the main prison guard, the authoritarian Captain (Strother Martin), the new inmates are taught obedience: "You call the Captain 'Captain'...and you call the rest of us 'Boss', you hear?" [The scene has been compared to Christ's appearance before Pontius Pilate.] Luke is there for "maliciously destroyin' municipal property while under the influence." The soft-voiced Captain is astonished at the uniqueness of Luke's irreverent crime: "We ain't never had one of them before." Luke describes his own feelings about destroying bureaucratic, regulatory property: "I guess you could say I wasn't thinkin', Captain." Although he performed well in the war, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a couple of Purple Hearts, and attained the rank of Sergeant, he "come out the same way" he went in: "Buck Private." Ultimately alienated, Luke had often fought the system - and lost: "I was just passin' time, Captain."

The reticent loner is given a two year sentence to work on a chain gang (Division of Corrections, Road Prison 36) with forty-nine other prisoners. He is instructed in the preliminary line-up:

You gonna fit in real good, of course, unless you get rabbit in your blood and you decide to take off for home. You give the bonus system time and a set of leg chains to keep you slowed down just a little bit, for your own good, you'll learn the rules. Now, it's all up to you. Now I can be a good guy, or I can be one real mean son-of-a-bitch. It's all up to you.

Luke is placed in an isolated environment with strict rules, guards, and regimentation and his fiercely individualistic spirit immediately clashes.

In the bunk house, a litany of rules are delivered by a strutting, cigar-chomping, broad-waisted, white-uniformed guard-floor walker named Carr (Clifton James). Each infraction is rewarded with "a night in the box":

Them clothes got laundry numbers on 'em. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends the night in the box. These here spoons, you keep with ya. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There's no playin' grab-ass or fightin' in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playin' grab-ass or fightin' in the building spends a night in the box. First bell is at five minutes of eight...Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends a night in the box. There's no smokin' in the prone position in bed. If you smoke, you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smokin' in the prone position in bed spends the night in the box. You'll get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top and the top sheet on the bottom. The bottom sheet you turn into the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box. No one will sit in the bunks with dirty pants on. Any man with dirty pants on sittin' on the bunks spends a night in the box. Any man don't bring back his empty pop bottle spends a night in the box. Any man loud-talkin' spends a night in the box. You got questions, you come to me...Any man don't keep order spends a night in the box.

Carr immediately senses Luke's cool contempt: "I hope you ain't gonna be a hard case." Hulking boss convict Dragline (George Kennedy) bullies one of the new convicts with his own top-dog attitude: "Boy, you're new meat. You're gonna have to shape up fast and hard for this gang. We got rules here. In order to learn 'em, you gotta do more work with your ears than with your mouth." Luke soon draws the attention of Dragline and is eyed suspiciously as a con-artist - he is treated as a hostile, spirited and flippant outsider. The newcomer is advised: "You don't have a name here until Dragline gives you one." As the acknowledged leader of the gang, Dragline has a preliminary name for Luke and they have their first sparring:

Dragline: (About Luke) Maybe we ought to call it No Ears. (To Luke) You don't listen much, do ya, boy?
Luke: I ain't heard that much worth listenin' to. There's a lot of guys layin' down a lot of rules and regulations.

At dawn, the shackled men quickly assemble to be driven to work. During the drive in the van, Dragline continues to belittle Luke, the "war hero," about his crime:

Dragline: Tearin' the heads off of, what was it, gumball machines? What kind of thing is that of a grown man?
Luke: Well, you know how it is. Small town. Not much to do in Eaton. Mostly was just settlin' an old score.

In the searing hot sun, the road-gang convicts endure back-breaking physical labor - chopping dusty weeds by the side of the highway. The men must ask permission, e.g., "Takin' it off, boss," when they want to do something out of the ordinary, such as remove articles of clothing in the heat. They are closely eyed by one of the impassive, impersonal yet sadistic guards - the 'man with no eyes' Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward) - a nameless boss with reflective sunglasses who never speaks. Their main mid-day meal is a pile of beans and a slab of cornbread. Even Luke's eating habits are distinctively non-conformist - he takes a bite and leaves the spoon sticking out of his mouth.

One of the new inmates, Gibson complains about his job assignment (after being promised to switch to an easier job in a set-up) - he is given "a chance to think about it" with an overnight stay in the box - "a very valuable lesson." Dragline disavows responsibility for the cruel joke, but Luke is tersely sarcastic:

Dragline: He ain't in the box because of the joke played on him. He back-sassed a free man. They got their rules. We ain't got nothin' to do with that. Would probably have happened to him sooner or later anyway - a complainer like him. He gotta learn the rules the same as anybody else.
Luke: Yeah, them poor old Bosses need all the help they can get.
Dragline: You tryin' to say somethin'? You got a flappin' mouth. (His words are drowned out by the last bell). One of these days, I'm gonna have to flap me up some dust with it.

Carr accounts for all of the 50 prisoners after the last bell: "Forty-nine, one in the box, Boss."

One day while the men are digging a ditch in the scorching sun, a blonde-haired, shapely and sexy young woman (Joy Harmon) in a neighboring house prepares to wash her car, sending the men into a voyeuristic frenzy. She brings out a radio and turns it on, signalling the beginning of her sexual act. One of the convicts asks permission to clean his glasses: "Wipin' off here, boss." As she opens up the nozzle on her watering hose, a particularly-apt phallic symbol, the men perk up and attentively spy "the scenery."One of the prisoners can't endure the lustful suffering she is creating: "Oh man, oh man, I'm dyin'." One man can't endure the lustful suffering she creates: "Oh man, oh man, I'm dyin'." The woman wets down the car and then lathers and caresses white, frothy soap suds over the car's surfaces. She tempts and stimulates the men even further in the symbolic simulation of the sex act. She looks into the car's rear view mirror and into one of the tire's shiny hubcaps to look back to see how the men are being pleasured.

Her loose-fitting blouse with well-endowed breasts begins to open up and taunt them. Gambler (Wayne Rogers) observes: "She ain't got nothin' but, nothin' but one safety pin holdin' that thing on. Come on safety pin, POP. Come on baby, POP." The men dig more vigorously as she heightens her own cleansing activity. Dragline prays to the heavens to sustain his eyesight just a little longer for the girl he names Lucille: "Hey Lord, whatever I done, don't strike me blind for another couple of minutes. My Lucille!...That's Lucille, you mother-head. Anything so innocent and built like that just gotta be named Lucille." Knowing that she has a ripe and attentive audience, the blonde rubs the car harder and harder. In the most blatantly sexual act of all - the orgasmic conclusion to her show - she squeezes the white foam out of her sponge and rubs the soap suds across her abdomen. Luke (Paul Newman) knows what she is doing:

Convict: She don't know what she's doin'.
Luke: Oh boy, she knows exactly what she's doin'. She's drivin' us crazy and lovin' every minute of it.
Dragline: Shut your mouth about my Lucille.

She gently drinks from the end of the penis-shaped hose. While washing the roof of the car, her soaped-up, ample breasts are squeezed as they rub back and forth across the car's window.

Later that evening while the men take a communal shower, their frustrated and already-heightened sexual-aggressive tendencies flare up. In the hot-house barracks as the men lie in their bunks, they sweat profusely. Dragline remembers the afternoon's entertainment and fantasizes while frustrating the other prison-mates: "Did you see how she was just about POP-in' out of the top of that dress...And down below, man, that thing didn't reach no higher than...She liable to catch cold runnin' around like that. It was stretched so tight across her bottom, I do believe I saw one of them seams bust loose. And the openin' got wider and wider and wider." Luke brings him back to reality, causing Dragline to take a particular disliking toward him:

Luke: Forget it, man.
Dragline: Whaddya mean, forget it?
Luke: Stop beatin' it into the ground. It ain't doin' nobody no good.
Dragline: OK, new meat. You get some sleep. And save your strength, cause you're gonna need it. Tomorrow.

The ventilation fan in the bunkhouse spins and cuts to the next day's weekly boxing sparring, where Luke is challenged to a showdown - the weekly knock-down, drag-out boxing fight in front of the other men. Characteristic of his indomitable spirit, in the middle of a circle of convicts, Luke is severely bloodied and beaten by Dragline but won't stay down. The other convicts sensibly advise him to stop and survive the epic pounding: "Just stay down, Luke. He's just gonna knock ya down again, buddy...It's not your fault. He's just too big...Let him hit you in the nose and get some blood flowing. Maybe the bosses will stop it before he kills you." Mockingly, strong-willed Luke replies: "I don't want to frighten him."

Ignoring their suggestions, Luke taunts Dragline as he doggedly keeps fighting without surrendering. In the bloody fray, he takes the brutal punishment upon himself, suffering for their entertainment at first, and then taking the blows that could lead to his own death. Repelled by Luke's mindless, 'who-cares' attitude, Dragline eventually implores Luke to drop and quit so that he won't be killed:

Dragline: Stay down. You're beat.
Luke: You're gonna have to kill me.

By not submitting his spirit, Luke 'wins' the fight when his opponent walks away, although Dragline convincingly overpowers him physically. Luke's iron will earns the grudging respect of Dragline and other convicts.

He also proves himself a hero and endears himself to the inmates during a poker game. With a winning hand of 'nothin', easy-going, stone-faced Luke successfully bluffs his opponent. After winning the pot, Luke is anointed with his prison name:

Dragline (laughing): Nothin'. A handful of nothin'. (To the losing, card-playing convict) You stupid mullet-head. He [Luke] beat you with nothin'. Just like today when he kept comin' back at me - with nothin'.
Luke: Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real Cool Hand.

[Luke's dependence on "nothin'" and the many parallels between Luke and Jesus Christ recall the Biblical reference in Luke 1:37: "For with God, nothing shall be impossible." Luke's prisoner number was also 37.]

Dragline begins to establish a friendship, luxuriating in the reflective glory of Luke's exuberant victories. He develops a nickname for Luke - while sliding over near him: "Move over. I'm gonna sit in here next to my boy - Cool Hand Luke." The label signifies Luke's cool-headed, independent, individualistic spirit that won't submit to the powers that be.


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