‘Cool Hand Luke’ (1967): Rugged individualist’s counterculture tale, underpinned by religion

“Some men…you just can’t reach.”

By Paul Mavis

The original trailer says it all: “the motion picture that simply will not conform.” I recently picked up the Blu-ray transfer of Warner Bros.’ 1967 chain gang meller, Cool Hand Luke, so it seemed like a good time to revisit this world-shaker (“Buyin’ that new Blu-ray disc up here, boss?” “Yeah…buy that new Blu-ray disc, there, Drag.”).

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Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, written by ex-con Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, and starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, Joy Harmon, Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew, Clifton James, J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Harry Dean Stanton, Ralph Waite, Anthony Zerbe, and Joe Don Baker, Cool Hand Luke is an aggressive, muscular drama, soaked in crude, powerful symbolism—one that can be enjoyed on many levels: existential exploration of a cruel, meaningless world; Christ returned to Earth, still forsaken by his Father; funny, rowdy prison comedy; and accomplished, slick actioner. Paul Newman gives his best performance as the Christ-like existentialist “Cool Hand” Luke, outrunning bloodhounds and battling the guards while refusing to ever give up—even when he knows that the fight, from the very beginning, was futile.

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Set in a backwoods Florida chain-gang after the war (the script plays it cool as to which war—WWII or Korea—to help keep the movie undated), Cool Hand Luke opens with the crime that puts decorated war hero Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) on a chain gang for a two-spot: cutting the heads off municipal parking meters. Arriving at the rural prison camp with five other “new meat,” Luke already stands out with the Captain (Strother Martin), the soft-spoken but sadistic warden, because of the surreal, seemingly nonsensical nature of Luke’s crime—one the Captain readily admits he’s never seen before.

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And it’s not just the Captain who takes notice of new prisoner Luke; Luke’s thoughtful yet stubborn loner qualities attract attention among the regulars of the bull-gang, chiefly Dragline (George Kennedy), the massive, bear-like leader of the cons, as well as the camp’s bosses, particularly the silent, menacing Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward).

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Luke is contemptuous of the rules and regulations laid down by both the Captain and the guards, as well as by Dragline and the other cons—a contempt he makes known with no fear (and with, perhaps, no sense of what’s in his own best interest, as another con and Luke states later in the film). But Luke sticks to the rules, playing it cool, until his defiant, smart-ass nature won’t allow him to stay low anymore. Ticking off Dragline one too many times, Luke has to box Drag (the camp’s method of settling scores, as well as entertainment for the sullen guards).

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Beaten badly by Drag, Luke still refuses to give up, never quitting the fight, which earns him the respect of Drag and the other cons (and the wary concern of the Captain and the guards, who are on guard for mounting insubordination), which Luke further solidifies when he successfully bluffs Drag’s sidekick Koko (Lou Antonio) in a big poker match. Adopted by the child-like Drag as his new best buddy (and newly christened with his bull-gang name, “Cool Hand” Luke), Luke begins his ascent as a larger-than-life symbol of individuality and resistance for the cons, goading the guards by getting the prisoners to actually work harder on a miserably tough assignment (tarring a road), as well as achieving superhuman status by winning an impossible eating contest (“Nobody can eat 50 eggs.”).

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But the death of Luke’s mother, Arletta (Jo Van Fleet), gives the Captain his first chance to step on Luke; he puts the charismatic, rebellious Luke in the “box” (a small, narrow, brick sweat house used for punishment) so he can’t escape to the funeral. This tips the scales for Luke, who had previously relegated his defiance to mostly psychological games with the other cons and the guards—largely as a way to keep himself amused in the crushing deadness of prison life. Now, escape is on his mind, and just like everything else he’s done in prison, he simply will not quit.

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1967 was the year mainstream Hollywood exploded in terms of incorporating on the screen the themes, the energy, and the ideas behind the growing counter-culture and the seismic sociological shifts occurring at that time in the United States.

RELATED | More 1960s film reviews

1967 saw the release of such iconic, ground-breaking Hollywood movies as The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, The Dirty Dozen, (all of which exploited the screen’s new-found acceptance of increasingly frank depictions of sex and violence), while even more “conventional” films such as In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, and To Sir, With Love (importantly, all starring Sidney Poitier), safely incorporated timely topical themes (in these cases, race) into familiar entertainments. Foreign imports as well, including Sergio Leone’s Western Dollars trilogy with Clint Eastwood, and Sweden’s I Am Curious (Yellow) brought to American art houses and drive-ins startling graphic takes on violence and sex that would only escalate from this historical point.

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Which brings us to Cool Hand Luke. A title instantly recognizable to millions of fans of 60s movies, watching it now in relation to those other titles, it hardly seems showily “groundbreaking,” in either themes or execution. And indeed, when the film was released, it received generally positive—but certainly not “masterpiece”—reviews. On the contrary: quite a few critics saw it as merely a visually arresting but essentially tired retread of earlier, better prison flicks, such as I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. Despite its status today, at the time it received as many knocks as Newman’s previous attempt at inhabiting an old film genre for Warner Bros.—the private eye film—in 1966’s cooly received Harper.

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Viewed against the movies listed above, Cool Hand Luke seems almost positively quaint in its depiction of violence. Luke may be subjected to increasingly harsh cruelty as the film progresses, but a stick across his back pales in comparison to Lee Marvin and Jim Brown gleefully pouring gasoline and grenades on Nazi officers and their wives in The Dirty Dozen. And except for one memorably erotic, dirty-joke sequence where incredibly-endowed farm-girl Joy Harmon drives Luke and the chain gang wild by washing her car (her squeezing a sponge of orgasmic soap suds over her wet stomach is still pretty potent), there was more sex in the “family friendly” James Bond extravaganza You Only Live Twice that year, than in Luke.

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Yet despite the classic, almost nostalgic structure of Cool Hand Luke, in comparison with those other groundbreaking movies, precisely because of its timeless, primordial, romanticized appeal, it seems far more “fresh” than a few of the iconic movies already noted (have you watched The Graduate lately? Yikes). Deeply saturated in religious fable and myth-making allegory, for years critics have debated the obvious Christian symbolism loaded throughout Cool Hand Luke, symbolism that ameliorates (and strangely compliments) the existential aspects of the film (it’s an excellent primer for beginning movie critics, because the movie’s symbolism is so overt and plentiful).

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While Newman obviously didn’t invent the “antihero” in films (you can find prototypes all the way back to the silents, despite some historians insisting that the archetype properly can’t be dated before WWII), he certainly specialized in such roles, and his portrayal is so strong and assured here, it’s easy to see how critics and viewers view his turn as “Cool Hand” Luke as the first inkling of what was to come in rootless, emotionally cut-off movie heroes of later sixties and seventies films.

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Cool Hand Luke isn’t exactly subtle in its presentation of Luke-as-Christ figure/cosmic existential loner-fighting-The System. Donn Pearce’s and Frank R. Pierson’s screenplay, and Stuart Rosenberg’s direction, are unabashed in their embrace of flagrant symbolism. The first shot in Cool Hand Luke is a huge close-up of a parking meter, its dial reading “VIOLATION” in white block letters against a red background…which pretty much sums up what you’re going to get as far as nuance here. Existential angst ping-pongs back and forth with Christian imagery, creating almost a fairy-tale atmosphere that’s miles removed from any kind of true, gritty “reality” of a chain-gang in Florida.

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Luke tries futilely to “settle an old score” with seemingly everything that bugs him: with society; with faceless authority; with convention; with bourgeois order (municipal parking meters). He also expresses his barely concealed contempt for the cons, whose brutal behavior mimics the cruel guards in their arbitrary rules and regulations. At the same time, Luke amuses himself by playing a dangerous game of building himself up to be a non-conformist, nihilistic hero in the eyes of the men—a “put-on” on top of a put-on that is only a joke to Luke (“Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.”). All of this points to an existential anti-hero perfectly in tune with the emerging counter-culture, a character that utterly rejects the traditional conventions of a movie “hero,” and yet…Cool Hand Luke assigns and elevates this character to a biblical stature that is entirely at odds with his other ideological orientation.

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Christ and Bible references saturate Cool Hand Luke, the most obvious being after the famous egg-eating contest, when Luke is shown from above, laid out on a table in the familiar Christ-on-a-cross pose. When Luke is put away in the “box” when his mother dies, Luke dons a white nightshirt (not unlike a robe) and is shot looking skyward, the light filtering down in a fair approximation of the way George Stevens shot Max Von Sydow (as Christ) in The Greatest Story Ever Told. “Walking Boss” Godfrey is clearly designed to be Satan—the “Man with No Eyes,” as the cons call him (Satan in the Bible was described as having no eyes), an evil figure clad all in black who never speaks except in terms of death at the end of his rifle. Godfrey (not much of a stretch, perhaps, to “God-fried,” a.k.a. God’s favorite angel sent down to rule Hades?), in no uncertain terms is the “opposite number” of Christ/Luke, who recognizes his nemesis’ power immediately. In the film’s best bit of symbolic allegory, which many critics seem to miss, Luke snatches up a threatening rattler, which Godfrey kills. Luke tosses the snake up to Boss Godfrey and says, “You forgot your walkin’ stick, Boss!” with a big innocent grin on his face to cover the obvious reference he knows Godfrey knows (in the Bible, Satan’s walking stick was a serpent).

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Twice in the film, Luke appeals directly to God (his father…if he’s Christ), calling him “Old Man,” asking why he has forsaken Luke (“Love me, hate me, kill me! Just let me know you’re there!”). Indeed, at the end of the film, in a dilapidated church where Luke awaits his fate (brought on by friend/Judas, Dragline), he appeals once more to God (“You made me like I am. Where am I supposed to fit in?”), getting no answer. Many have taken the resulting silence to be the film’s judgement that existentialism wins out over religion, but they forget that Luke continues to address God despite this rejection (“I guess you’re a hard case, too.”). He still believes he’s up there. Existentialism and religious uncertainty coalesce, perversely strengthening each other.

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Of course, if you’re not in the mood for philosophical explorations, you can just take Cool Hand Luke for an expertly crafted drama/comedy/actioner. While the Luke character, unable to love or accept others’ love, isn’t exactly a fantasy figure we’d want to be friends with (he rejects his mother’s love and concern his whole life, and his wife’s, as well as the cons who looked up to him, and the child-like Dragline—”Where you going?” Drag dejectedly asks when they escape. “Just on my own,” the cold Luke replies), Cool Hand Luke is such an entertaining picture outside of its philosophical underpinnings that one can just lose oneself in the mechanics of the whole thing, and still vicariously step into Luke’s chains.

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The rugged individualist who absolutely refuses to bend to any authority is perhaps the single most influential male archetype in American pop culture (or at least it was…before the cocoa-drinking, pajama-clad liberal snowflake beta males and their masters, the insolent, menacing, powerfully-built feminist brigade, deemed such macho manifestations as “toxic”). And on that level, Cool Hand Luke may be the most satisfying exploration of that particular ideal (which of course is crazily perverse, since Luke don’t get too happy at the end). Craftily, the film doesn’t put Luke in the same league as the killers in say, The Dirty Dozen. Had Luke been a rapist or murderer, no one would want to identify with him, no matter how charming he turned out to be (cutting the heads off parking meters is comical, not morally repugnant).

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It also helps that Luke is played by Paul Newman, at the absolute zenith of both his craft and his Roman-bust good looks (one of the few actors that men wanted to be, and women wanted, with no threat inbetween). Newman, such a skilled, charismatic performer, is effortlessly funny and heroic as Luke. His 60s “put-on” manner, having been given a workout in Harper, is honed to perfection here (the egg-eating contest is a true classic). Action fans who like their heroes suitably macho and martyred, will find their dream move here in Cool Hand Luke. If you think the ending is a downer, just remember Luke’s last smile, and that curiously-torn snapshot of him….

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PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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