Rated PG. Running time: 2 hours 6 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5) 5
“To you, O Lord, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me,
for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
Hear the voice of my supplication, as I cry to you for help,
as I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Director Stuart Rosenberg’s classic film Cool Hand Luke is a powerful story about birth of a myth. Lucas Jackson, dubbed “Cool Hand Luke” by a fellow prisoner known only as Dragline (George Kennedy) when he coolly bluffs his way to victory in a card game, is at the center of the myth which focuses upon the spiritual liberation of his fellow prisoners. It is also one of my all time favorite films from which I have often drawn spiritual nourishment. This is that rare case in which the film is better than the novel because of the immediacy of its presentation: the novel is narrated by someone who knows a person who knew Luke. The film does away with this narrative device, showing us Luke acting and speaking without any buffer between him and us.
At first sight Lucas Jackson hardly seems like the kind of person who inspires myth. He is not the roughest, toughest fighter in the prison camp. Big, burly Dragline beats him soundly in a boxing match. Luke’s is not the brightest mind in the prison camp – another of the prisoners is far more of an intellectual than he. He is not a great lover; his girl friend ran off with a salesman. During WW 2 he was decorated for his bravery, but since then he has just drifted. Nor was the offense which earned Luke a two year chain gang sentence the kind to make the headlines or cause others to fear and tremble before him. His heinous crime? Cutting off the heads of parking meters during a night of drunkenness.
The Southern prison camp warden, called “Captain,” (Strother Martin) and the guards (addressed by the prisoners as “Boss”) mark him from his first day at the camp as a troublemaker. It is Boss Carr, telling the new prisoners about the rules, who responds to Luke’s mockery, “I hope you ain’t going to be a hard case.” And so he proves to be, once he earns the trust and respect of the other prisoners following the boxing match with Dragline. Although he lost the fight to the bigger Dragline, Luke had won a victory because he would not stay down, but kept getting up time after time, taking Dragline’s pounding blows almost with disdain. Even Dragline had pleaded with him to “Stay down!”
Luke sneers at the rules and false beliefs of his fellow prisoners. He challenges their fear of a lightning bolt-wielding God by standing out in a thunderstorm and daring the ”Old Man” to strike him dead for his impiety. When Dragline tries to get him to stop, Luke asks, “Are you still believin’ in that big bearded Boss up there? You think he’s watchin’ us?” Dragline and the other prisoners cower in fear in the back of the truck and expect to see Luke struck down at any minute. There is a more sinister person watching, though we cannot see his eyes. Sitting in a truck is Boss Godfrey, called by the prisoners “The Man With No Eyes” because he always wears a pair of silvered sunglasses. We will see him frequently taking note of Luke’s many rebellious acts.
Earlier in the film when the gang is repairing a road near a ramshackle house and a bosomy girl washing her car teases them by posing in her short dress and wetting it so that her breasts might as well be naked, the men are mesmerized. One of them, totally turned on, says that she doesn’t know what she is doing (to them). Luke replies, ‘She knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s driving us crazy and loving every minute of it.”
In another scene Luke leads the men in a conspiracy to subvert the power of the guards by working twice as fast as they had wanted them to on a road paving job. Following Luke, the prisoners make the formerly tedious, backbreaking work into a game. The guards are so astonished by the merry frolicking of their road crew and their finishing the job two hours ahead of schedule that they allow the men to spend the time saved by just lolling about. Dragline exclaims, “Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of nothin’.”
Sentenced just to a two years term, Luke might not have run away from the camp, but for the cruelty of the Captain. Upon receiving a telegram that his mother has died (shortly after she had paid him a short visit), Luke expresses his grief by strumming on a banjo and singing a gospel song. But not really a gospel song, a parody of one called “Plastic Jesus,” perfectly in keeping with Luke’s way of rebelling against and mocking the world. But soon there are tears in his eyes, and he is unable to finish the singing. At the next morning’s assembly the Captain calls Luke to “fall out.” Luke sees the sweatbox where prisoners are locked up for solitary punishment. The warden tells the men he fears that Luke might get “rabbit in the blood” and take off for the funeral. Two of the bosses are sympathetic, one of them apologizing and saying he just is doing his job. Luke refuses this gesture of kindness, replying that saying that doesn’t make this right.
As if in retaliation to his treatment, that very night Luke, when he is released from the box, does get “rabbit,” his sneaking out of the camp covered by the other inmates’ noisy 4th of July celebration and Dragline’s distracting Carl, their dorm supervisor. Another prisoner attempts to follow, but when one of the men alerts Carr, he is caught at the fence. The quick-witted Luke eludes the bloodhounds, causing the death of the exhausted lead hound. Luke is caught later by a policeman and returned, whereupon the Captain, attempting to make Luke’s situation a warning to the other prisoners, sweetly gives a lecture to Luke and the men. When Luke makes a smart aleck reply, all sweetness vanishes from the lawman’s voice as he viciously strikes Luke down with his cane. He delivers his famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate…”
Luke runs away again. One day Dragline receives a magazine from an unknown source. Stashed inside it is a photo showing Luke sitting between two beauties, with a message scrawled on it saying, “Dear boys, playing it cool. Luke”
The men, rejoicing at this proof of their hero’s success, come to regard the photo as if it were a holy icon, later waiting in line to pay Dragline a fee for a long look at the symbol of freedom and rebellion. (Drag already controls most of the money in the camp through his management of Luke’s legendary feat of eating 50 eggs, most of the men having bet against his being able to do so.)
When the runaway is caught and returned again, the Captain and his men drag Luke into the dorm. Clearly beaten to within an inch of his life, Luke resists the prisoners’ admiring attention, revealing that the picture was a phony. He orders them to leave him alone, to stop “feeding off” him. The Captain, intending to break his spirit, orders Luke to dig a grave-sized hole in the yard until told to stop. But as soon as Luke has dug one, a guard comes up and orders him to fill it in. This Sisyphus-like process goes on all day and late into the night, Luke digging and then filling it in. The prisoners try to keep Luke’s spirits up by singing, one of the songs being “Ain No Grave Gonna Hold this Body Down.” But this time Luke has been beaten with staves several times, and there seems to be no end to his ordeal. Finally, worn out in body and spirit, he expresses remorse and pleads with one of the bosses that his “mind is set right.” The Captain, standing near by and convinced by Luke’s desperate pleading, lets him up from the hole, but promises that they will kill him if he tries to escape again.
Luke staggers back into the dorm, but the men are so disappointed by their hero’s giving in that they turn away from him. One of them is so disgusted with Luke that he takes out the iconic photo and tears it into quarters. Falling down between the bunks, Luke asks “Where are you now?” A person of faith might think of the sad verse referring to the disciples in Mark 14:50 that concludes the account of the arrest of Jesus, “All of them deserted him and fled.”
Out on the road later, Luke is the perfect picture of docility, much to the disdain of the other prisoners. When asked by The Man With No Eyes to take the turtle he has just shot to a dump truck, Luke trots over to it and climbs in. He drives away instead of returning. Dragline is so surprised by this turn of events that without thinking of the consequences, he runs and jumps into the dump truck’s cab. The raised bed deflects the guards’ bullets and pellets. When they rush to their trucks, they find that Luke has taken all the keys. The camera dollies in for a close up of the Man With No Eyes face, the highway down which Luke has fled reflected in the lenses of his glasses. (This is one of many great camera shots displaying the director’s skill in this, his first feature film following a successful stint as a TV director.)
What a film! Director Stuart Rosenberg has taken a novel of rebellion in a Southern prison camp and transformed it, with the able help of writers Don Pearce (author of the novel) and Frank Pierson and the fine cast headed by Paul Newman, into a multi-layered probe of the beginning of a myth. In a telephone interview I conducted with the director, Mr. Rosenberg told me that he approached Luke through Albert Camus’ essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The Existentialist writer had claimed that in an absurd world Sisyphus had fully accepted his task and destiny and was therefore happy. Thus the film director could picture the Titan as smiling during that interval when he comes down the hill and prepares to roll the stone back up. This smile in the face of absurdity and adversity Mr. Rosenberg made the trade mark of Lucas Jackson, as we are reminded so well in the last scene of the film in which a dozen or so flashbacks show, as Dragline calls it, “that Luke smile.”
Luke’s story is fascinating in itself and beautifully filmed, but it can also be enjoyed on the theological level as well. Luke, as an unusual Christ Figure, brings a sense of liberation to his fellow prisoners and strikes fear in the hearts of those who use fear and force to prop up their harsh authority. Tyrants, whether they rule a nation or a small prison camp, fear the loss of authority or power, these being the only things which distinguishes them from those they regard as scum.
Luke is a Christ Figure, not in any moral sense, but in that his life and death serve to liberate his fellow prisoners from this fear of the guards and the unquestioning acceptance of their captor’s authority. Although set in a Southern prison camp, this is an Easter film that celebrates the power of the human spirit to smile at the adversities and absurdities of life, and even laugh, in the face of brutal repression and death. Cool Hand Luke stands very much in the tradition of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” or even The Gospel of Luke in its challenge to those who accept the world as it is with no questions asked. We might well call this “The Gospel of Lucas Jackson.”
Thoughts on the Film’s Gethsemane and Easter Scenes
I am setting this section off in case you have not yet seen this film, I advise you to wait until you have before reading on so that you can get the most enjoyment from the film.
Miles down the road that night Luke rejects Dragline’s invitation to go to his home for a meal and then try to break out a friend from the prison camp. Dragline thinks they can get away and live a free life. The far wiser Luke is very aware of the fate that will overtake them. He convinces his chief disciple that it would be better if they split up. As he and Dragline go their separate ways, Luke sees an old weather-beaten church and enters. It is deserted. He looks around and settles in, sitting down on one of the benches. Now he has time to think. He muses aloud, addressing God in his usual semi-mocking manner.
“Anybody here? Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute? It’s about time we had a little talk.” He pauses, then says O.K., and assumes the traditional posture of prayer by kneeling, folding his hands, and closing his eyes. No response. Luke opens one eye and looks upward. From his point of view we see only empty rafters. Still no answer. Another shot of empty, silent rafters. Luke confesses that he has been a pretty hard case, but you must admit, he tells God, you haven’t dealt me much of a hand. No answer. He sighs and regains his feet, exclaiming, “O.K., I guess I’ll have to find my own way.” Headlights shine through the window, and Dragline appears, calling softly to him, “Luke, Luke.” Luke looks up to the rafters and says, “Is that your answer, Ole Man? I guess you’re a hard case, too.”
Luke has always felt he has had to go it alone. The closest we see him engaged in a religious act before this church scene is when he sings the satirical song “Plastic Jesus.” Word of his mother’s death had been brought to him, and this song is his way of working through his grief. Then, when the Captain had ordered him to be confined in the box during the day of his mother’s funeral, some rebellious chord deep within him was set into motion and would not be stopped.
Luke is dimly aware that he is perceived by the other prisoners as a Christ figure, but he wants nothing of this role: he cried out at one point, “Stop feeding’ on me!” as he struggled to be left alone. Only he will not be let alone. The prisoners need someone to free them from their fears, and the guard’s need to kill him because his refusal to fit in threatens their power, based as it is on fear and the acceptance of the status quo.
The church scene, then, is Luke’s Gethsemane. He prays for enlightenment, but none comes, other than the familiar face of dim-witted Dragline. God neither talks with nor sends angels to minister to Luke. He feels utterly abandoned–and this too, can be compared to Christ’s feeling of abandonment when, on the cross, he cries out the first lines of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Luke knows what his fate is, although he has not been able to pray with Jesus, “Nevertheless…” When Dragline appears, not realizing that he has become a Judas by revealing Luke’s hiding place, the dimwit naively says that things will be the same again if only Luke will surrender. They promised him they would not whip Luke this time.
Luke smiles, knowing better, as he sarcastically replies to Dragline, “I’ll bet they’ll even give us our old bunks back!” “Just play it cool,” Dragline assures him. Part of the burden of being a Christ figure is to know one’s fate, and to experience the silence of God, for the Creator intervenes only through the acts of others, the good and the bad. It is not so much, perhaps that God is silent, as it is that he “speaks” in ways we cannot, or do not want to, hear. Luke is right, Dragline is God’s answer to his prayers, and God is indeed “a hard case.” Smiling knowingly, Luke goes over to a window to look out at the posse. He repeats the Captain’s words about “failure to communicate.” It is Boss Godfrey (No Eyes) who shoots him. Thus even at the moment of his death Luke mocks his tormentors. Enraged, Dragline does something that shows that Luke has now freed him from all fear of the guards. A close up of the silvered sunglasses underlines this.
The next morning Dragline and the prisoners are chopping weeds on the road directly across the road from the little church where Luke had been murdered.
The myth of Cool Hand Luke takes on its full form as Dragline tells his friends, eager to hear the details of their hero’s death, “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. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he’s a natural-born world-shaker.”
During the narrative we are treated to a baker’s dozen flashbacks of Luke. Following “natural-born world shaker” the camera tilts down to see that Dragline now wears shackles, shackles that have not imprisoned his mind and spirit. Pulling back for a long shot of the prisoners and their guards, it reveals that the chain gang has arrived at a crossroad. Moving swiftly to an overhead shot, it shows that the roads form a cross clear across the screen. A dissolve shot brings into view the torn photograph of Luke and the women, the four pieces now placed together, yet the tear clearly visible—also revealing a cross.
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