Filmsite Movie Review
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Pages: (1) (2) (3)
Plot Synopsis (continued)

Luke's sickly, dying mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) visits one Sunday afternoon to say goodbye, stiffly and painfully propped up in the bed of the pickup truck - it is presumably their last time together. Driven by her respectable son John, Sr. (John Pearce), she is chain-smoking a cigarette while coughing [with lung cancer, emphysema or consumptive TB?]. Arletta still cares and expresses warm affection for her wayward yet favored son - but with guarded words. Although she is disappointed about how he turned out (and feeling guilty about her role as caregiver), Luke tells her that she'd done her best raising him as a single mother.

In the tragic scene which implies much about her son's broken childhood and upbringing, the terminally-ill Arletta expresses regrets and resigns herself to "let go" of her independent-minded son who tried to live like she did - "free and above board." In the poignant conclusion to their conversation, she plans - after her death - to give her inheritance to her less-loved son John:

Arletta: I always hoped to see you well fixed. Have me a crop of grandkids to fuss around with.
Luke: I'd like to oblige you, Arletta, but uh, right off, I just don't know where to put my hands on it.
Arletta: You know, sometimes, I wished people was like dogs, Luke. Comes a time, a day like, when the bitch just don't recognize the pups no more, so she don't have no hopes nor love to give her pain. She just don't give a damn...(She hands him the pack of cigarettes)
Luke: You've done your best, Arletta. What I've done - myself is the only problem.
Arletta: No, no it ain't Luke. You ain't alone. Everywhere you go, I'm with you. John too.
Luke: You never thought maybe that's a heavy load?
Arletta: Aw, why, we, we always thought you was strong enough to carry it. Was we wrong?
Luke: I don't know. There are things just never the way they seem, Arletta. You know that. A man's gotta go his own way.
Arletta: I guess I just gotta, gotta love you and let go, hmm?
Luke: I guess.
Arletta: Well, I ain't askin' what ya gonna do when you get out because I'll be dead and it don't matter.
Luke: You never did want to live forever. I mean, it wasn't such a hell of a life.
Arletta: Oh, I had me, I had me some high old times. Your old man, Luke. He wasn't much good for stickin' around, but dammit, he made me laugh.
Luke: Yeah, I would have liked to have knowed him, the way you talk about him.
Arletta: (after coughing) He'd have broke you up. Luke?...What went wrong?
Luke: Nothin', everything's cool as can be. Arletta, I tried. I mean, to live always free and above board like you. And, I don't know. I just can't seem to find no elbow room.
Arletta: (takes his hand) Oh now, you always had good jobs. And that girl in Kentucky. Oh, I'd taken a shine to her.
Luke: And she sure took off - with that convertible fella.
Arletta: Well, why not? Idea of marryin' got you all, all bollocksed-up. Tryin' to be respectable. You, you was borin' the hell out of all of us. I'm leavin' the place to John.
Luke: That's good. He earned it.
Arletta: Ain't nothin' to do with it. I just, I just never give John the, the kind of, you know, feelin' that I give you, so I'm, I'm gonna pay him back now. Oh, don't feel you have to say anythin'. The way it is, you see, sometimes you just, just have a feelin' for a child...with John, I just didn't.

As Luke is told his time is up for the visit, Arletta encourages him: "Laugh it up, kid. You'll, you'll make out." Luke's nephew John, Jr. (Eddie Rosson) asks why his uncle doesn't have chains, and Luke answers with experience:

John, Jr.: Why can't you have chains?
Luke: ...You know, them chains ain't medals. You get 'em for makin' mistakes. And you make a bad enough mistake and then you gotta deal with the man - and he is one rough old boy. OK?

John, Sr. presents his brother with his last remaining possession - a banjo: "Now there ain't nothin' to come back for." [The Tramp (Harry Dean Stanton) sings the religious song Just a Closer Walk With Thee on the front steps of the bunk house, accompanying himself by strumming a guitar.]

One of the detestable jobs the prisoners must perform is to shovel sandy dirt onto a newly-tarred country road that stretches out into the distance. It is hot, back-breaking work but rebellious Luke makes a frenzied challenge out of it, spurring the prisoners on to work faster and shovel harder. Dragline urges the men to follow Luke's lead: "Use that shovel like it was your spoon...shag it, mac.. Hah!" Boss Godfrey can't walk fast enough down the center of the road to keep up with their progress. Dragline discovers that their enforced labor is fun: "I don't know whether to smile, spit, or swallow." After Luke's sabotage of the system, the guards are embarrassed that the work is completed in record time and there is nothing left to do for the rest of the day. The scene fades out on a red STOP sign.

Dragline: Where'd the road go?
Luke: That's it. That's the end of it.
Convict: Man, there's still daylight.
Dragline: About two hours left.
Convict: What do we do now?
Luke: Nothin'.
Dragline: Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin'.

As a prelude to the film's memorable, comic egg-eating contest scene, Dragline bets on his boy Luke: "He can eat busted bottles and rusty nails, any damned thing." Luke boldly wagers that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour. [The number 50 becomes significant - since there are 50 prisoners' souls and 50 eggs, Luke's ingesting of the eggs parallels Christ's taking upon himself the sins of the world and bringing about a rebirth. Eggs, the celebration of Easter, and the resurrection are symbolically tied together.] The men exuberantly bet against him, disbelieving that he can perform the miracle without throwing up: "Fifty eggs gotta weigh a good six pounds...A man's gut can't hold that. They'll swell up and bust him open....They're gonna kill him." Remarkably, Luke takes the challenge - it's raining and the activity will pass the time: "It be somethin' to do." After a period of preparatory training, stretching his stomach's skin to make room for the eggs ("What we gotta do is stretch that little ol' belly of yours. Get all this stuff out of the way. Them eggs are coming down!"), and eating speed tests, Luke is about ready. He sits on his top bunk with a towel draped over his head [another Christ image].

Dragline readies the crowd for the contest: "All right. Stand back you pedestrians, this ain't no automobile accident." As Luke's trainer, he peels the eggs before they are eaten, arguing that Luke doesn't have to peel his own eggs within the hour limit: "When it comes to the law, nothin' is understood...I'm his official egg-peeler. That's the law!" The big event begins with Luke's entrance, the removal of his shirt, and his kneeling down in front of the men who surround a table in front of him. One of the convicts observes how quickly Luke pops each egg in his mouth: "He's gonna lose a finger eatin' eggs like that." After 32 eggs, Luke's bloated stomach bows out: "Just like a ripe watermelon that's about to bust itself open." Some of the men bet against him as Luke anoints his forehead with water. Dragline, with Luke in cahoots with him, encourages everyone to wager everything against Luke: "I wanna hear from some big money men. Where's all the high rollers?" Society Red (J.D. Cannon) replies that everything has been bet: "I believe you've got it all, Dragline. Every cent in camp is riding."

As time is running out, and Luke approaches the elusive goal of 50 eggs, Dragline coaxes him on: "Just nine more between you and everlastin' glory...Just little ol' eggs. They pigeon eggs, that's all." The men mimic his chewing action. Up until the last second, it is uncertain whether he has swallowed the last egg. After his winning victory, Luke is laid out on a table strewn with egg shells. The men quickly forget about him and abandon him after using him for their own amusement. Luke is left alone - from an overhead shot, his arms are outstretched, his legs are crossed at the ankle, his eyes are closed, and his head is tilted toward the left - [a symbolic Christ-like crucifixion pose]. An enigmatic grin crosses his face.

When a poisonous rattlesnake in the thick grass along a country road threatens the men as they chop weeds in a ditch, Luke boldly grabs for it and holds it up. The 'man with no eyes' shoots the head off the rattler with one shot from a shotgun. Luke reflects back the boss' expertise in his dark sunglasses: "Man, you sure can shoot." A booming thunderstorm breaks open the skies above the men. While the convicts are permitted to scamper to the truck for cover from the rain, Luke looks up and gestures toward the heavens. In a conversation with God, he challenges God's power over nature and his own life, but he concludes that God's existence is questionable:

Luke: Let him go. Bam, Bam.
Dragline: Knock it off, Luke. You can't talk about Him that way.
Luke: Are you still believin' in that big bearded Boss up there? You think he's watchin' us?
Dragline: Get in here. Ain't ya scared? Ain't ya scared of dyin'?
Luke: Dyin'? Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Do ya hear that? Are ya hearin' it? Come on. You're welcome to it, ol' timer. Let me know you're up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it. (He looks around) I'm just standin' in the rain talkin' to myself.

Dragline pays off the bets following the egg-eating contest and he brags about Luke, his deceptively cool, witty performer: "That's my darlin' Luke. He grin like a baby, but he bites like a gater."

When Luke receives notice in a telegram that his mother has died, he is given space by the inmates to pay his last respects to her in the privacy and quiet of his cell bunk. He strums on a banjo and sings a requiem for her - it's a parody of a raunchy pop-gospel tune "Plastic Jesus," a song that is about finding temporary solace with a plastic Virgin Mary:

Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin' on the dashboard of my car.
Comes in colors, pink and pleasant, glows in the dark cause it's irridescent
Take it with you when you travel far.
Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones sittin' on a pedestal of abalone shell
Goin' ninety, I ain't scary [sic - 'wary'], 'cause I've got the Virgin Mary, assurin' me that I won't go to Hell.
Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones sittin' on a pedestal of abalone shell
Goin' ninety, I ain't scary, 'cause I've got the Virgin Mary, assurin' me that I won't go to Hell.

Early the next morning, the Captain orders that Luke be put in the isolated, windowless prison "box" to keep him from getting "rabbit in his blood" and running to his mother's funeral to pay his last respects. As Luke is led to the cramped box, the guard is sympathetic and apologetic: "I wanna say a prayer for your Ma, Luke...Sorry, Luke. Just doin' my job. You gotta appreciate that." Luke reminds the man: "Aw, callin' it your job don't make it right, boss."

He is let out after his Ma is "in the ground" and advised: "You best forget about it, Luke. Got a day and a half lay in. Tomorrow's a holiday." That night, the men dance to loud radio music during the holiday - Luke can no longer endure confinement and rebels against the system. He saws a hole in the wooden floor of the bunkhouse. Between the first and second bell, his cohorts distract Carr with a trashy novel while Luke escapes - he's counted as missing: "one in the bush." The bloodhounds are given pieces of Luke's clothing for the scent. He eludes and confuses the dogs by wading through water, jumping fences, traversing land by wires, and criss-crossing. He is pursued into a railyard and down train tracks, but escapes by jumping off a train trestle into water.

Dog Boy (Anthony Zerbe), one of the prisoners who religiously tended the bloodhounds, reluctantly returns to camp without his prey, but with a dead bloodhound in the trunk of the Sheriff's car: "He run himself plum to death." But soon, Luke is quickly captured and returned to the road gang. To make an object lesson of the runaway, the Captain of the prison is determined to admonish and break Luke 'for his own good' in front of the other men:

Captain: You're gonna get used to wearin' them chains after a while, Luke, but you'll never stop listenin' to them clinkin'. 'Cause they're gonna remind you of what I've been sayin' - for your own good.
Luke: (back-talking) I wish you'd stop bein' so good to me, Captain.
Captain: (enraged) Don't you ever talk that way to me. (He savagely lashes out at Luke with his stick.)

Previous Page Next Page