Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: Paul Newman
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” It’s the most famous line from Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke but does not encapsulate the film. After all, Cool Hand Luke has been effectively engaging and communicating with audiences for over 40 years. Featuring an iconic performance from the great Paul Newman (and an Oscar winning supporting performance from George Kennedy), this is a film that everyone should see sooner or later.
The film takes place at a Florida prison, where Luke Jackson (Newman) has been sentenced to spend two years for cutting the heads off of parking meters. Luke’s rebellious ways ensure that he runs afoul with everyone at the prison, but particularly fellow inmate Dragline (Kennedy), whose authority as leader of the prisoners Luke consistently undermines, and Captain (Strother Martin), the man who runs the prison. Captain does everything he can to demoralize Luke and make him fall in line, but eventually Luke’s unbreakable spirit earns him the respect and admiration of Dragline and all the other prisoners.
After learning that his mother has died, Luke becomes determined to escape. The first attempt results in recapture and ending up in leg irons. His next attempt is more successful, in that he actually gets away for a little while, but once again he ends up right back at the prison and is given a brutal punishment. Just when Captain thinks that he’s won (and the other prisoners become convinced that maybe Luke isn’t the indomitable spirit they thought he was), he puts it all on the line in one last, desperate attempt to show the world that he can’t be broken or contained.
Pop culture is full of rebels fighting The Man, refusing to acquiesce to the demands of the powers that be to conform and stop challenging the system. The paper rebels – the ones that don’t really stand for anything, the ones that aren’t really fighting against anything, the ones for whom “rebellion” means brooding and doing a half-hearted impression of James Dean – we forget easily; but those characters who actually tap into a real sense of discontent, who are actually rooted in a larger socio-political context, stick with us. Luke is the kind with staying power, not only because the film makes such great efforts to define him in his own terms, but also because it allows him to stand in relief to the pretender kind. In his final adventure, Luke is joined by Dragline, his former rival turned devoted follower. When the authorities close in, Dragline makes a deal to surrender peacefully while Luke opts for the blaze of glory exit that will allow him to stick it to the Bosses one last time. When Dragline describes Luke’s last stand at the close of the film, he isn’t just expressing admiration for a friend, but acknowledging how rare it is that someone who has attained that status actually follows through, refusing to knuckle under right to the end.
Cool Hand Luke is anchored by Newman’s iconic performance, which earned him an Oscar nomination as Best Actor. He’s able to make the character connect with the audience even as the film holds him at a bit of a distance, viewing him as a legendary figure who is at once worshiped but ultimately not entirely knowable. Luke plays it cool, content to keep you guessing; his past is hinted at more than directly discussed, as in a scene in which Luke’s mother (Jo Van Fleet) makes a brief visit. Van Fleet, in this one short scene, delivers a memorable performance that not only proves the old adage that there’s no such thing as “small parts,” but also allows Newman to add some crucial shades to Luke as a character. He’s softer in this scene, more human, and it’s probably as close as we get to him at any point in the movie.
I’ve read reviews that have made a case that Cool Hand Luke is a Christ allegory and though I’m not entirely sure whether that holds up, Luke was probably the most brutally punished protagonist in film until The Passion of the Christ came along. He endures so much and just keeps coming back for more with a smile on his face. Why does Luke live on? Because, like Dragline says, he’s a “wild, beautiful thing” and such things are rare and precious.