Greatest Film Scenes
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Cool Hand Luke (1967)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

In director Stuart Rosenberg's popular prison chain-gang drama with numerous Christ references and images - it was based upon ex-convict inmate Donn Pearce's novel (with Frank R. Pierson), about life on a late 1940s-era chain gang, It presented a moving character study of a non-conformist, masochistic anti-hero loner who bullheadedly resisted authority and the Establishment.

The stubborn, unruly and independent rebel refused to submit and continually and cooly defied the authorities with repeated escape attempts. As the inmates started worshipping him as a folk hero, he risked everything in order to live up to their expectations, and was sacrificed in the tragic climax:

  • the film's spirited title character was an irreverent, rebellious, social misfit named Luke (Paul Newman); he was arrested in May of 1948 in a town in N. Florida for maliciously destroying municipal property (he drunkenly cut the heads off two rows of parking meters); without resisting arrest for social defiance, he grinned at the officers and was subsequently sentenced to two years' imprisonment in a tough correctional Southern road-gang prison farm, commanded by sadistic, prison warden-officer Captain (Strother Martin)

Drunken Luke (Paul Newman) Arrested for Cutting off Heads of Parking Meters

Road-Gang Workers from Southern Prison Farm

Captain (Strother Martin)
  • after Luke's arrival with three other prisoners, the Captain noted about Luke's background that he had performed well in the war - with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a couple of Purple Hearts, and had attained the rank of Sergeant, but he "come out the same way" he went in as a "Buck Private." Ultimately alienated, Luke had often fought the system; by being placed in the isolated environment with strict rules, guards, and regimentation, he would undoubtedly clash due to his fiercely individualistic spirit
  • the 'rules' of the house were delivered in the prison's bunk house to the new prisoners by white-uniformed guard-floor walker Carr (Clifton James) - he kept mentioning that infractions resulted in a reward of "a night in the box" (a cramped isolation unit): ("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...")
  • Carr immediately sensed Luke's cool contempt for authority and dominating power as did hulking, illiterate and powerful chain-gang boss convict Clarence "Dragline" Slidell (George Kennedy): "Boy, you're new meat. You're gonna have to shape up fast and hard for this gang"
  • during the day in the hot southern sun, the prisoners were ordered to chop dusty weeds by the side of the highway with a sickle, or to dig with shovels; they were closely watched by a 'man with no eyes' - Walking Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward) - a Boss with impenetrable reflective sunglasses who never spoke; prisoners had to seek the Boss's permission for everything, such as "Takin' it off, boss" (to remove a shirt)
  • in the film's most titillating scene by the roadside, a blonde-haired, shapely, well-endowed and sexy young woman (Joy Harmon) in a nearby house prepared to wash her car. Her provocative activity sent the men into a voyeuristic, frustrated frenzy; she frustrated the prisoners by soaping up, pressing her sudsy breasts against a car window, and hosed off herself and her car in plain sight (Luke: "She knows exactly what she's doin'. She's drivin' us crazy and lovin' every minute of it.")
Teenager Performing a Soapy and Sexy Car-Wash
  • during the next day's weekly, knock-down, drag-out boxing fight sparring in front of the other men, Luke was challenged to a showdown with Dragline; at the end of the epic brutal boxing match, Luke refused to give up by surrendering and staying down on the ground - and thereby received a severe beating; Luke's mindless, 'who-cares' attitude caused Dragline to implore Luke to drop and quit so that he wouldn't be killed, but eventually Dragline had to walk away and give up the fight
  • that evening, Luke also proved himself a hero and endeared himself to the inmates during a poker game when the easy-going, stone-faced Luke successfully bluffed his opponent "with nothin'" and won the pot; Luke became a hero to his fellow inmates, earning the title "Cool Hand" because his will could not be broken; Luke's nickname signified that he was cool-headed, and independent, and wouldn't submit to the powers that be
  • on a Sunday, Luke was visited at prison by his sick, terminally-ill, chain-smoking mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) who was coughing and suffering from emphysema as she talked to him from the back of a pickup truck; the visit revealed facts about his past broken childhood and upbringing; in the tragic scene, Arletta expressed regrets and resigned herself to "let go" of her independent-minded son who tried to live like she did - "free and above board"; she also declared that she had decided to give her inheritance, upon her imminent death, to her respectable, less-loved son John, Sr. (John Pearce); before leaving, John Sr. presented Luke with a banjo
  • during their work on shoveling sandy dirt onto a newly-tarred country road, the rebellious Luke made a frenzied challenge out of it, spurring the prisoners on to work faster and shovel harder; he created greater camaraderie amongst them, and they were ultimately rewarded with a few hours off at the end of the day when the work was completed in record time and there was "nothing" left to do
Luke's Encouragement of Prisoners to Work Faster, Resulting In Finishing Early With A Few Hours Off
  • the film's most entertaining segment was a hard-boiled egg-eating contest during a hot and rainy night, after Luke boldly declared that in one hour: "I can eat 50 eggs"; Dragline organized betting on the wager - and the men exuberantly bet against him, disbelieving that he could perform the miracle without throwing up: "Fifty eggs gotta weigh a good six pounds"
  • after his winning victory, Luke was laid out on a table strewn with egg shells; Luke was left alone - from an overhead shot, his arms were outstretched, his legs were crossed at the ankle, his eyes were closed, and his head was tilted toward the left in a crucifixion pose as an enigmatic grin crossed his face; shortly later, Dragline paid off the bets following the egg-eating contest and bragged about Luke
  • one day amongst the work crew as they chopped weeds in a ditch, a poisonous rattlesnake in the thick grass along the country road threatened the men; Luke boldly grabbed for it and held it up, as the 'man with no eyes' shot the head off the rattler with one shot from a shotgun; in the Boss' reflected dark glasses, Luke remarked about his expertise: "Man, you sure can shoot"
  • during a subsequent thunderstorm as others sought shelter in the trucks, Luke stood out in the rain and summoned God - but there was no answer: "Let me know you're up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it. (He looked around) I'm just standin' in the rain talkin' to myself"
  • and then Luke received a telegram that his mother had died; in the quiet privacy of his cell bunk, Luke strummed on a banjo and sang a requiem for her - it was an irreverent, raunchy pop-gospel tune "Plastic Jesus," a song that was about finding temporary solace with a plastic Virgin Mary
  • early the next morning, the Captain ordered that Luke be put in the isolated, windowless prison "box" (solitary confinement) to keep him from getting "rabbit in his blood" and running to his mother's funeral to pay his last respects; however, once he was let out of the box, he still was determined to escape confinement and rebel against the system; Luke sawed a hole in the wooden floor of the bunkhouse, escaped, and was pursued by bloodhounds and guards
  • he was soon captured and returned to the road gang; to make Luke a 'runaway' object lesson, the nasty prison boss Captain became determined to admonish and break him 'for his own good' in front of the other men, and delivered a famous line to the defiant Luke: "What we got here is failure to communicate"; the inmates idolized Luke's escape for boldly experiencing a short bit of freedom, as he regaled them with the story of his escape during a lunch break; Luke ate with a piece of bread sticking out of his mouth - his non-conformist way of answering Dragline's request to "lay low and build time" - he was already planning his next escape
The Captain's Words to the Defiant Luke: "What we got here is failure to communicate"
  • almost immediately after his first running off, Luke escaped again from the chain gang work detail while pretending to take a bathroom break behind bushes; a few days later, Luke mailed the inmates an issue of Outdoor Life magazine (sent from Atlanta) - stashed inside was a black and white picture of a well-dressed Luke surrounded by two female bar companions; but then the inmates turned to see a bruised and beaten Luke recaptured and dragged back into the bunkhouse - after his second failed runaway attempt; Luke shattered everyone's illusions by telling them that he had faked the picture: ("The picture's a phony. I had it made up for you guys...Nothin'. I made nothin', had nothin'...Stop feedin' off me!")
  • Luke was taken back to the box every night, and also humiliated and tormented with repeated tasks to systematically break his spirit, by digging and then filling up a graveyard coffin-shaped ditch in the ground; eventually, the tired and broken Luke admitted to the Bosses that he was finished - he begged the Bosses to accept his cracked will and tarnished pride: ("I'll do anything you say, but I can't take anymore")
  • now that Luke had given up and confessed: ("I got my mind right"), the other prisoners shunned him and contemptuously ignored him and refused to help him; he cried out against their betrayal: ("Where are ya? Where are ya now?")
  • but then to everyone's surprise, Luke reestablished his rebellious nature and drove off (with Dragline) in one of the boss' dump trucks, but wouldn't accept Dragline's assertion that he had 'fooled' everyone and hadn't been broken; Luke insisted on going ahead on his own without Dragline, and wandered toward an abandoned country church to take refuge
  • Luke sat in one of the church's pews and delivered a very memorable, rambling monologue; he talked to God and asked for guidance and help: ("Anybody here? Hey, Ol' Man, You home tonight? Can You spare a minute?"); police cars surrounded the church - revealing that Dragline had been captured and had - in exchange for clemency - led the officers to Luke's location; Dragline begged for Luke to peacefully surrender: "All ya got to do is give up nice and quiet. Just play cool"

Luke's Memorable Monologue with God

Luke Shot in the Throat at Church Window

Reddish Glow After Being Shot and Silenced Forever in a Country Church
  • Luke went to the church window and looked out on the Captain and the others - and mocked the Captain with his own words: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate"; Luke was tragically shot in the throat and silenced forever by the crack-shooting Boss with no eyes; Dragline carried the mortally-wounded Luke outside, and then charged at the Boss - toppling his sunglasses to the ground; the Captain denied Luke emergency clinic care, and he soon perished in the back seat of the Boss' car in the reddish light of the cherry-topped police cars - his face wore the familiar enigmatic grin - a Christ-like image and sign of the victory of his spirit over death; the Boss' sunglasses were crushed in the mud by the departing vehicle
  • in a final montage sequence, Dragline favorably remembered and resurrected his martyred hero while telling the story of his death to his convict-compatriots - it provided Luke's epitaph: "Old Luke, he was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker"

Rebel Prisoner Luke (Paul Newman) Admitting His Crime at Prison Farm to Captain

In the Bunk House, the 'Rules of the House" were Delivered by Guard-Floor Walker Carr (Clifton James)

Chain-Gang Boss Convict Clarence "Dragline" Slidell (George Kennedy)

Luke's Boxing Match against Dragline - He Refused to Give Up

Luke's Visiting Day With His Dying Mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet)

Luke's Egg-Eating Contest

Crucifixion Pose After Eating 50 Eggs

Boss Godfrey's Impenetrable Reflective Sunglasses

During a Thunderstorm, Luke Summoned God

Luke Strumming a Guitar and Singing: "Plastic Jesus" After His Mother's Death

Luke Placed "In the Box" To Prevent Him From Running

Luke's First Escape Attempt

After Capture, Luke Regaling the Others With His Tale of Escape - Bread Sticking Out of His Mouth

Luke's Phony Photo

Luke Captured Again - His Angry Assertion to the Other Prisoners: "Stop feedin' off me!"

Luke's Spirit Eventually Broken by Bosses

Crucifixion Symbols in the Film's Final Images


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