The Story (continued)
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
The Captain, who has now become the authoritarian object of Luke's rebellious will, foreshadows Luke's doomed future. He observes, in the film's most familiar line, that Luke demands more disciplinary rehabilitation:
What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week - which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men.
The men idolize Luke's escape and congregate around him during a lunch break. They learn that he went a mile and a half and then stole a "shiny new buggy" (with keys in the ignition) in a supermarket parking lot. He was pulled over at a stoplight by an inquisitive cop wondering about his incongruous "state-issued" clothing: "That's top-flight police work. That's all there is to it. The fella's probably a lieutenant by now." Dragline advises Luke to 'lay low' for a while: "We're just gonna lay low and build time. Before you know it...everything will be right back where it was. Right, sweet buddy?" Luke eats with a piece of bread sticking out of his mouth - his non-conformist way of answering.
Almost immediately after his first running off, Luke escapes again from the chain gang while having "privacy" behind some bushy trees. To prove he's there in the bushes, he repeatedly calls out while shaking the branches: "Still shakin' it, boss, still shakin'. I'm shakin' it, boss." He tricks the guards by tying a string to a branch and tugging on it from a long distance away. After escaping, Luke speaks to two curious black boys (James Bradley Jr. and Cyril "Chips" Robinson) who ask about his leg-iron chains: "Whatcha got them on for?...How do ya take your pants off?" He dares one of the boys to be strong enough to heft and bring him a heavy axe. The other boy encourages him to take the incriminating stripes off his pants. With a few strokes, Luke chops off the leg irons, and he leaves a lot of "chili powder, pepper and curry" in the path of the bloodhounds on his trail.
After a few days, Dragline receives an issue of Outdoor Life magazine (sent from Atlanta) during mail delivery - inside is a black and white picture of a well-dressed Luke surrounded by two female bar companions [the opposite page has an article on hallucinations titled: "A THING CALLED EARLY BLUR," subtitled "The Illusion That Kills" with a hunter aiming a gun right at Luke's heart]. Society Red reads Luke's writing for the illiterate Dragline: "Dear Boys: Playin' it cool. Luke." Dragline envies his friend's freedom: "Look at that! My baby. We're in here diggin' and dyin'. He's out there livin' and flyin'." Later, he calls the picture: "a true vision of Paradise itself with two of the angels right there prancin' around with my boy."
To their surprise, the inmates turn and see a recaptured Luke dragged back into the bunkhouse - after a second failed runaway attempt. The Captain threatens the lost soul on the floor:
You run one time, you got yourself a set of chains. You run twice, you got yourself two sets. You ain't gonna need no third set 'cause you're gonna get your mind right. And I mean RIGHT. (To the other inmates) Take a good look at Luke. Cool Hand Luke?
The inmates haul Luke's broken and beaten body over to a table and while gathered around him, they glowingly admire and idolize him for his daring escape and dalliance with two women: "You really can pick 'em, Luke...Come on, tell us, what were they like?" Luke tells them the truth, shattering their illusions about his adventure and good times: "The picture's a phony. Cost me a week's pay...The picture's a phony. I had it made up for you guys...Nothin'. I made nothin', had nothin'. A couple of towns, a couple of bosses. I laughed outloud once, they turned me in." He yells at their dumb ignorance, praise, and their insistence that the picture is real:
Oh come on! Stop beatin' it! Get out there yourself. Stop feedin' off me. Get out of here. I can't breathe. Give me some air.
On the road gang the next day, Boss Paul (Luke Askew), one of the guards mistreats Luke, kicking him for his indolence and weakness. At night, he is isolated in the box, and Dragline still boasts about his companion: "That old box would collapse and fall apart before Luke calls it quits." Society Red qualifies Luke's qualities - he has more nerve than brains: "Your Luke's got more guts than brains."
Luke's battered and tired spirit are put to the test when he is given a full plate of rice for dinner - an amount that would be impossible for him to eat by himself. The other inmates take spoonful portions of his food so that he doesn't break the rule: "You gotta clean your plate or go back in the box." [It is an apt metaphor for the way the inmates have vicariously taken pieces of him and fed off him.]
After a full week of work, Luke is humiliated and tormented by being forced to submit to the authority of Boss Paul. To systematically break his spirit in front of the other prisoners, he is ordered to dig a "graveyard-shaped" ditch on the prison grounds. When he has completed the grueling task of emptying the Boss' ditch, he is told to fill it back up again - and then after it's filled to re-empty it again! The men sing "Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down" in full view of his tortured, groveling humiliation.
To symbolize his own death and the genuine end of his ferocious individuality and defiance, the guard slashes Luke across the head at the end of one end of the ditch, and he is tossed backwards into the open "coffin." Broken and tired, he begs the bosses to accept his cracked will and tarnished pride:
Luke: Don't hit me anymore...Oh God, I pray to God you don't hit me anymore. I'll do anything you say, but I can't take anymore.
Boss Paul: You got your mind right, Luke?
Luke: Yeah. I got it right. I got it right, boss. (He grips the ankles of the guard)
Boss Paul: Suppose you's back-slide on us?
Luke: Oh no I won't. I won't, boss.
Boss Paul: Suppose you's to back-sass?
Luke: No I won't. I won't. I got my mind right.
Boss Paul: You try to run again, we gonna kill ya.
Luke: I won't, I won't, boss.
When Luke returns to his bunk house, the men begin to abandon and turn away from him - one of them rips his phony picture into four pieces now that he is no longer their hero. After confessing to them, "I got my mind right," the prisoners contemptuously ignore him and refuse to help him - and he cries out at their betrayal: "Where are ya? Where are ya now?"
On the chain gang, Luke is forced to slavishly run errands for the guards and to become the water-carrier for the other prisoners. When he fetches a large turtle shot by the boss with no eyes, Luke pulls up the jaw-clenching beast: "Here he is boss. Deader than hell but won't let go." Playing the beaten fool, an instant later, Luke regains his rebellious nature and drives off in one of the boss' dump trucks - with Dragline hopping on the running board. He craftily stole the keys out of all the trucks so that pursuit is delayed.
Dragline admires Luke's bravado and remembers how Luke 'fooled' them about being broken. Without embellishment or heroic pride, Luke accepts and admits that he was broken:
Dragline: You're an original, that's what you are. Them mullet-heads didn't even know you was foolin'.
Luke: Foolin' 'em, huh? You can't fool 'em about somethin' like that. They broke me...
Dragline: Aw. All that time, you was plannin' on runnin' again.
Luke: I never planned anything in my life.
A fugitive one more time, Luke has decided to lay low, remain on his own, and not join Dragline for worldly pursuits: "I've done enough world-shakin' for a while. You do the rest of it for me. Send me a postcard about it." As Luke wanders toward an abandoned country church to take refuge, Dragline calls out: "You're a good ol' boy, Luke. You take care. You hear?"
In a memorable scene as Luke sits on one of the plain wooden pews, he delivers a rambling monologue and repeatedly talks to God and asks for guidance and an answer, occasionally looking up toward the empty rafters - his entreaties are met with silence:
Anybody here? Hey, Ol' Man, You home tonight? Can You spare a minute? It's about time we had a little talk. I know I'm a pretty evil fella. Killed people in the war and I got drunk and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much, but even so, You've gotta admit, You ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. It's beginnin' to look like You got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all of 'em rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol' Man, I gotta tell Ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it's beginnin' to get to me. When does it end? What do Ya got in mind for me? What do I do now? All right. All right. (He kneels on his knees and cups his hands in prayer) On my knees, askin'. (pause) Yeah, that's what I thought. I guess I'm pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. I guess I gotta find my own way.
A few police cars drive up in front of the church. Dragline calls out to his friend from the church door: "Luke?" Luke looks up and addresses an aside to God: "That's your answer ol' Man? I guess you're a hard case too."
They are cornered and Dragline [like Judas the Betrayer], in exchange for a promise of clemency, reveals where Luke has been hiding - in the church:
Luke? You all right? They got us, boy. They're out there, thicker than flies. Bosses, dogs, sheriffs, more guns than I've ever seen in my life. You ain't got a chance. They caught up with me right after we split up. And they was aimin' to kill ya. But I fixed it. I got 'em to promise if you give up peaceful, they won't whip ya this time...Luke, you gotta listen to me. All ya got to do is give up nice and quiet. Just play cool.
Luke opens up one of the church windows and looks out on the Captain and other sheriffs in an eerie red light reflected from the cherry-tops. Ultimately unbroken and with a cocky, assured but cool smile, he mocks the Captain with the famous film line:
What we've got here is a failure to communicate.
He is tragically shot in the throat and silenced forever by the crack-shooting Boss with no eyes. Dragline supports and carries his mortally-wounded friend to the vengeful bosses, and then hysterically charges toward the killer - he grabs at the man's throat with an iron grip. The reflective glasses that have never left the boss's face topple to the ground. Weakened and sliding in mud, the boss gropes for his glasses. As Luke is put in a vehicle and taken to his sure death at the prison hispital, Dragline encourages him: "You hang on in there Luke. You hang on. There's gonna be some world-shakin' Luke. We gonna send you a postcard." Flooded by a reddish glow, Luke dies in the back seat of the boss' car - his face wears the familiar grin - a sign of the victory of his spirit over death. The tires of the vehicle smash and grind the sunglasses into the mud. In the distance as the car drives away, a stoplight turns from green to red - his spirit leaves his body.
In a final montage sequence, Dragline favorably remembers and resurrects his martyred hero while telling the story of his death to his convict-compatriots outside the church during a work break in the chain gang. Images of Luke's legendary, unbreakable smile from scenes in the film are flashed back on the screen:
Dragline: They took him right down that road.
Convict(s): What'd he look like, Drag?...Yeah, what'd he look like?..He had his eyes opened or closed, Drag?
Dragline: He was smiling...That's right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Old Luke, he was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker.
The camera pulls back from Dragline, now in leg-iron chains himself, chopping weeds at a cross-roads - a crucifix symbol. Luke's picture (torn cross-wise) is superimposed on the cross-roads where the chain gang works.
Also Worth Your Attention...
AMC Filmcritic's Review of Cool Hand Luke