Reflections of the Third Eye
29 September 2013
Cool Hand Luke
Now Playing: Roma-Bologna half-time
Topic: C

I tracked onto an accidental Paul Newman theme with my three latest movie screenings, and why not. For one thing, Newman was one of relatively few who brought  a touch of classic Hollywood charisma to the 1960s descent of American cinema. After The Hustler (reviewed below)  the time has now come to COOL HAND LUKE (1967), which could be seen as a slightly later chapter in the saga of the same protagonist. The presumably type-cast Newman plays almost identical characters: cocky, independent alpha dogs, gaining admiration for their natural self-assuredness, but also lacking in self-insight, unfit for social games, and prone to drastic, unpremediated action. One gets a sense of a person who could achieve great things, but keeps tripping on his own impatience and egocentricity. This was one hero-type, perhaps the dominant one, for the pre-counterculture 1960s, rooted in the James Dean blue-jean rebel on one hand, and Kerouac’s beat outsider on the other hand.

Beyond the main character, and Newman’s performance, the two movies are almost opposites; where the black & white The Hustler is artistic, psychological, dark and urban, Cool Hand Luke is traditional in direction and straightforward in character presentation, set mostly outdoors and shot in brightly lit technicolor. After a minimal prologue, the viewer finds ‘Lucas’ (Newman) arriving at a prison work farm where he’s been sent for 2 years for a seemingly minor offense. Taking it in stride, he tries to play the prison game best he can, being polite to the guards and seeking a place in the convict hierarchy. Lucas’ natural instincts to challenge authority and never give up wins him admiration among the prisoners, whose inofficial leader (George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning role) adopts the ‘new-beat’ and gives him his nick name, ‘Cool Hand Luke’. Things proceed in the dull, cyclical way one expects at a lock-up facility, the only break being the unexpected visit from Luke’s mother, a charmingly eccentric performance by Jo Van Fleet. This short sidetrack is vital not only for narrative purposes, but also because the dialogue offers some needed exposition of Luke’s background; not much but enough to add another dimension to his character. Shortly after this visit the mother passes away, which sets the final act in motion.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate..."

NOTE: the next two paragraphs are crammed with spoilers, and you may want to skip these if you haven’t seen the movie. There are some minor spoilers in the later paragraphs.

After being put in isolation for no significant reason, Luke’s attention moves from avoiding boredom into plans on escaping. This he does with remarkable ease (it is a work farm and not a maximum security prison), but after outrunning the guard posse and their trained bloodhounds, he is spotted by a policeman and taken back. Duly punished for his crime he gets back with the chain gang again, only to escape once more. This time he’s away for some time, enough to send a greeting to his convict friends, but ultimately he is turned in and returned to the work farm. Luke is badly beaten by the guards, who with the prison warden’s support decide that his spirit must be broken. This is achieved through a powerful sequence which has an injured Luke being ordered to dig out and fill in a grave-like ditch, over and over, until he finally collapses and begs for no more violence. Seemingly broken, he returns to the sleeping barracks, where his former supporters turn his back on him since he bowed for ‘the man’, no matter that it came after days and hours of torture—a harsh but credible socio-psychological observation.

After recuperating, it turns out that Luke was only temporarily broken, and in his most desperate attempt yet, he steals a truck from the guards during roadside work, and is accompanied by George Kennedy’s prison gang leader. The latter celebrates their newfound freedom but it’s clear that Luke was escaping just to escape, and soon gives up. One last provocation from him causes one of the most vicious prison guards to shoot him on sight, after which he’s driven off to the prison hospital, presumably dying. Meanwhile, the convicts are all back in their barracks, where stories of Luke’s actions are already turning into myth. The last scene delivers the image of Luke smiling broadly as the ambulance takes him away.

The main theme for Cool Hand Luke is established early on, as the protagonist talks dismissively of all the ‘rules and regulations and laws’ that are in effect in prison, and society at large. Luke is not a professional rebel, but a strong-minded invididual who doesn’t mind restrictions as long as they have nothing to do with him, but who will challenge restrictions that hamper his established freedom. Set at a work farm, the rules and regulations are naturally many, both among guards and convicts. A decorated ex-soldier, Luke is prepared to play the local rules under ordinary circumstances, but with the vicious personalities of the guards, and the subhuman standing of the prisoners, he is no longer in any ordinary environment. Such an unequal system will soon turn out to be flawed and begin breaking its own rules, after which an independent soul like Luke can no longer accept it. This takes place after the death of his mother, when Luke is put in the isolation ‘box’, ostensibly because her death might increase his risk of escaping, but probably because he broke the social protocol of fearful obedience to the most terrifying of the guards, the ‘Man With No Eyes’ (so called because of his reflecting sunglasses). We can see Luke shoot an accusing look towards the guard when he enters the box. After getting out, he immediately sets about escaping, which he had shown no inclination towards earlier.

The significance of the change is clear: the prison system violated its contract with the prisoners by putting him in isolation for no valid reason, and so he is not obliged to maintain his part of the contract, i e: not try to escape. His subsequent escapes are not so much yearnings to be free as protests against a prison which fails to follow its own code, while handing out extremely limiting regulations to the prisoners. This becomes clear towards the end, where Luke finally manages to prove, at a sufficient scale, that the laws and rules of imprisonment are just a shell under which people, some worse than others, act out primitive games of oppression. The final two images reveal this theme in a precise, memorable way: the seemingly unbreakable glasses of The Man With No Eyes lying broken on the ground, and Luke’s smile as he’s taken away.

Earlier on in the movie we have seen the complete opposite of the corrupt prison system, in the drawn-out boxing match between Luke and the prison gang leader. True to his character, Luke refuses to give up and stay down, despite being knocked to the ground over and over, and ultimately the other convicts find his helpless resistance painful to watch. The gang leader too realizes that the rebellious heart of Luke won’t give up until he is beaten to death, and abandons the fight, after which Luke is accepted into the social circle of prisoners, where he soon becomes a favorite. In other words, George Kennedy’s gang leader refuses to follow the rules of the game (boxing) and knock Luke down until he can’t get up anymore, because he respects Luke’s will-power and fears the outcome. In this scene, the law is shown to be flawed and is ignored by a player for humane reasons, whereas in several other scenes with the prison guards, the law is ignored by players for inhumane reasons.

This in turn demonstrates what I assume to be the main point of the movie, which is that rules are theoretical constructions that are never stronger than the people who maintain them. Sometimes the rules are broken for vicious reasons, sometimes for good-hearted reasons. Any person in a regulated system, such as society in general, will have his ideology and will-power tested against the regulations, and in that confrontation a certain number of people will react in an unprescribed way. The admirable logic of Cool Hand Luke is to let these questions and themes be raised among people who are locked in at the fringe of the general system. However, rulebreaking in this local fringe system (a prison) will usually lead to two completely different outcomes, proving in yet another way how imprecise and situation-bound the codes and rules are. If you are a prison guard, you will probably get away with breaking the rules. If you are a prisoner, you will not get away with breaking the rules, instead you will be punished harder.

At the end of the movie, Luke shows us a guard who breaks the rules and for once is unable to get away with it. The Man With No Eyes’ first punishment is instantaneous, as the prison gang leader attacks him violently. The second punishment is symbolic, as the reflecting sunglasses are trampled down and run over by a police car (representing the general system). The third punishment is predicated by the law of the general system, which will bear down on a prison guard shooting an unarmed escapee for no reason. The vital achievement that causes Luke to smile at the end is not provoking the shot, but forcing the local system into openly revealing its broken, inhumane nature.

A second thematic cluster deals with the communication and handling of rule violations in a given system or game. The presence of this theme is shown by the prison warden’s sarcastic line ‘failure to communicate’, which Luke repeats at the end of the movie; it is in fact his very last line. The movie raises the question of how that failure manifests itself in a local prison system in comparison to the general society system. A prisoner complaining of mis-treatment (rule-breaking) will probably be punished if he makes his complaint inside the local system. Outside the local system, in communication with a lawyer or relatives, his complaint may be received, but it will not carry much weight due to the low status of an inmate. This structure can be applied to many instances of delimited human systems, with different results. If a factory worker discovers that his employer is accidentally poisoning the local river due to cost cutting, the result of his communication will be radically different if he goes to his superiors, to the proper government branch, or to an environmental organisation. Cool Hand Luke does not explore this secondary theme to any great extent (many other movies do; Michael Mann’s Insider is an example) but it is a testament to its strongly articulated script that it opens a useful door to such a discussion.

It’s easy to take Cool Hand Luke as an above-average contribution to cinema’s long line of prison movies. The loud extroversion and presence of the main characters, the recurring violence, the menacing guards and improvised social structure among the convicts are all typical elements. But it isn’t quite a prison movie; the escape plans that usually are central to the narrative are completely absent until Luke comes out of the isolation box, and the escapes themselves are simple and unglamorized—we don’t even get to see what Luke does when he stays free for a relatively long period after the second run. Nor is there the typical internal strife between different groups of convicts, on the contrary is this one big happy family after Luke has been absorbed by their social body.

More than a prison movie, Cool Hand Luke is an archetypal drama which is unusually distinct in the way it deals with the themes discussed above. The underlying thematic structure dictates the flow of the storyline, which ensures that the vital points are brought home, while a self-confident intelligence in the script ensures that there is a thankful lack of overstatement or sentimentality (frequent plagues of older Hollywood movies). It is not a masterpiece, but it is a movie that combines straightforward storytelling with an unusual clarity of theme, and achieves a very effective balance between the two. The similarity in theme and storyline to One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is obvious, and it is likely that Donn Pearce's 1965 novel that underlies Luke took some inspiration from Ken Kesey's celebrated 1961 debut.

Returning briefly to The Hustler, I believe that a film student will find more to chew on in that movie, both in terms of form and psychological content, than in Cool Hand Luke. As a total experience however, I find the latter to be the slightly superior work, due to its powerful subtext and a hands-on execution which raises very few objections in the viewer (the overly long egg-eating bet is my main complaint), or at least in this viewer. 7 of 10


In 'Spot The Star' one can find Dennis Hopper, Joe Don Baker (young and uncredited), Harry Dean Stanton (already looking old) and Anthony Zerbe (his debut) in small roles as convicts.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:47 PM MEST
Updated: 29 September 2013 10:46 PM MEST

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