Paul Newman (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Hud) is “Cool Hand Luke,” a man who tries to preserve his individuality while serving a two-year sentence in a Southern chain gang.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“What we’ve got here is…a failure to communicate…” – Strother Martin as Captain.
Cool Hand Luke, written by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, based upon a novel by Pearce, directed by Stuart Rosenberg (The Amityville Horror and Brubaker), was a big hit when it first debuted in movie theaters more than forty years ago. Understandably, the film’s anti-establishment themes struck a nerve with troubled 1960s’ audiences — Baby Boomers were quick to embrace a story about a character oppressed by the government’s arbitrary rules of confinement and the detached nature of our bureaucratic system.
You can clearly see why the movie was a huge hit with younger crowds. I’m sure many young viewers could identify with the character’s plight, thus a new anti-hero was born. Astoundingly real and exciting, Cool Hand Luke not only encapsulates the sixties culture in an uncanny way, but it also transcends its era thanks to the timely themes of perseverance and determination expressed throughout.
As the story’s main character refuses to conform to the rules of the prison system, his struggle manages to achieve mythical proportions. Luke suddenly becomes a Christ-like-figure. And the religious symbolism is cleverly integrated into the storyline. Luke is prisoner # 37 (Luke 1:37: “For nothing is impossible with God”) and he often assumes a Crucifixion-like pose. You could argue that his fellow inmates are The Apostles. There is an intriguing episode with Luke and his mother, played by Jo Van Fleet (East of Eden); here you see a variation on the The Parable of the Prodigal Son. I’m sure there are more examples of the film reflecting Bible stories.
Cool Hand Luke also manages to be a vivid and explosive indictment of the correctional system, displaying a harrowing testimony of man’s injustice to human individuality by drowning it in collective conformity. Although the film oversimplifies some of the evils of our society, it does portray a powerful and vibrant story about the price we sometimes pay when trying to remain true to ourselves.
But you rebels out-there don’t get too excited yet. The film is also anti anti-hero — it’s very cynical in places. The film has fun mocking people who blindly follow leaders. There is nothing romantic about “rebels-without-a-cause,” the film argues. Luke constantly laughs at the idea of somebody wanting to be like him. The self-deprecating attitude adds another layer to the story.
Most of the film’s effectiveness is due in part to Newman’s extraordinary Oscar-nominated performance. It’s one of his very best roles. George Kennedy (Airport and The Naked Gun), who is unforgettable as Dragline, won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The stellar ensemble cast includes Strother Martin (The Wild Bunch), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), Wayne Rogers (TV’s M*A*S*H), Harry Dean Stanton (Alien), Clifton James (Live and Let Die), and Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall).
Lalo Schifrin’s (Dirty Harry and The Amityville Horror) score contributes greatly to the melancholic atmosphere that permeates the entire film. Beautifully photographed by legendary cameraman Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and American Beauty).
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Funny, wise and ultimately sad, Cool Hand Luke is a wide and profound contemplation of human nature. This is an outstanding, engrossing film that begs to be rediscovered by a new generation of film lovers. Color, 126 minutes, Rated PG.