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Cool Hand Luke: Reviewing a Classic

Great movies, like great books, are worth returning to time and again because they deal with transcendent themes.  Last night I watched the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke.  When I saw it as a teenager, I loved it.  I could quote my favorite lines.  My friends and I talked about our favorite scenes.  It was cool.  Yes, the ending was not happy (Do I need to warn about spoiler alerts for such an old movie?), but Paul Newman, who played Luke superbly, and the movie were cool.  Fifty years later, I’m not so sure.

Luke is given a two-year sentence in a Florida prison for cutting the heads off of parking meters.  He was drunk and says that he wasn’t thinking.  Later, he says that it was a small town and there wasn’t much to do.  Luke’s initial crime begins a pattern of breaking rules, whether those of the prison bosses or those of Dragline, the prison leader played by George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning performance.  This series of disobedient acts–acts for which Luke suffers severely—raises the question of their purpose.  Why would anyone behave in such a way knowing that he would suffer so?

The answer that Cool Hand Luke gives to this question transcends, without neglecting, the answers given in James Dean’s teen angst seeking direction from failed parents in Rebel without a Cause or any number of 60’s movies about rebellion against the political establishment.  Certainly, Luke’s childhood was no piece of cake.  His father had abandoned the family and his dying mother, played in a poignant scene by Jo Van Fleet, appears to have been far from an ideal mother.  Furthermore, the movie forcefully critiques the tyrannically harsh and arbitrary treatment of the prisoners, first most clearly revealed when Luke is put for several days in “the box,” an exterior wooden structure of solitary confinement so small that there is no room even to lie down.  The reason? Because he might try to escape to attend his mother’s funeral.  So, yes, misfortune and tyranny are treated, but Luke’s response to these problems takes us into the realm of metaphysics, even theology.

The first clue we have of a difference is that Luke smile.  He smiles at the police arresting him.  He smiles when the prison official recites a litany of minor offences that all end with spending “a night in the box.” He smiles when Dragline recites his list of rules, including the exclusive right to name the prisoners.  The smile is a mocking one.  It communicates Luke’s awareness that these rules are made by pretentious little gods and that he does not recognize their authority over him.

However, Luke’s strategy is strikingly different from what we have learned to expect from the movies. He seeks to wear down the little gods by not allowing the punishment to break him.  On Saturday afternoon, when the prisoners are allowed to fight without being sent to the box, the much larger Dragline fights with Luke.  Time after time he knocks Luke to the ground, but Luke continues to get up.  In the face of such a brutal beating the prisoners began to leave and eventually even Dragline quits, leaving the groggy Luke still standing.  Later, after Luke wins a card game by reckless bluffing, Dragline laughs, “Nothing.  Handful of nothing.  He beat you with nothing.  Just like today when he kept coming back to me.  With nothing.”  Luke responds, “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand,” getting his name from Dragline and, as soon becomes evident, receives the mantle of leadership among his fellow prisoners.  Thus his “nothing” conquers.  His “nothing” is to suffer all the punishment that the tyrannical powers can inflict on him without ever yielding to them.

One of the most famous and entertaining scenes is the egg-eating contest.  It is also a significant turning point that reveals the existential and theological depths that the movie is going to plumb.  While the prisoners are discussing one of their fellow inmate’s ability to eat large amounts of anything, out of nowhere Luke states that he can eat fifty eggs in an hour.  One prisoner responds, “Nobody can eat 50 eggs.”  Another declares, “Man’s gut can’t hold that. They’ll swell up and bust him open.”  Luke no longer limits himself to denying arbitrary rules made by little gods.  He’s going to defy the laws of human nature and of nature’s God.

He succeeds, but the film significantly portrays his success in explicitly messianic images.  After winning, the camera shows Luke left alone on a table with his feet crossed and his arms extended outward.  The picture is an obvious allusion to the death of Jesus on the cross, although not so obvious that my unconverted heart picked it up at 17 years of age.  The number 50 of the eggs, which at first appeared to be arbitrary, no longer is.  It’s the same as the number of inmates.  Luke is bearing them and all their sufferings just as on the cross Jesus bore the sins of the world.

Cool Hand Luke utilizes Christian symbolism and its excellent musical score employs religious songs, but it is not a hopeful film.  Quite the contrary.  First, Luke is not a serious messiah.  When Dragline questions his betting money on eating fifty eggs in an hour, Luke says, “Yeah, well, it’ll be something to do.”  Boredom is his reason, just as boredom was his reason for cutting the heads off of the parking meters.  However, Luke’s boredom stems not from an excess of energy.  It is a kind of world weariness.  What the French call “ennui.”  Even more precisely, Luke’s actions are a result of what the theologians call “acedia.” Acedia is the spiritual state in which one has lost faith and hope and so does not care about himself or others.

Luke’s lack of faith is first shown when he refuses to get out of the rain and mocks God.  When one of the prisoners exclaims that you can’t talk about God that way, Luke says, “You still believe in that big bearded Boss up there? You think He’s watching us?”  He is not afraid of dying.  In fact, he challenges God to take “this little life.”  Why? Luke tells us.  “Let me know You’re up there. Come on.  Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it.”  When nothing happens, he says that he is “just standing in the rain … talking to myself.”

Luke was a decorated veteran who had risked his life in combat.  He consistently risks his life by defying the prison guards and escaping.  Yet this is not courage.  It is a carelessness with his life born from hopelessness.

Luke is not only an unserious messiah; he is also a false one.  After his second prison escape, he sends Dragline a magazine with a photograph of himself with two women.  They think that he’s free and in paradise.  However, he is captured and badly beaten. He tells the convicts that the picture is a phony and that they’re bosses out there, but they don’t want to believe him.  Shortly thereafter, he is forced time and again to dig a hole and then fill it up again.  The hole is in the shape of a grave.  The prisoners sing the gospel chorus “Ain’t no grave going to hold my body down.” Luke falls back exhausted into the pit and pleads that the guards stop beating him and that he’ll obey the rules.

He appears to be completely defeated and subservient, but escapes again.  Is he truly resurrected?  Did he fool the guards?  Dragline, who spontaneously joins him in the escape, thinks so, but Luke contradicts him saying they had broken him.  Dragline’s false messianic view of Luke continues even after Luke’s death.  The movie ends with him telling the other prisoners that Luke smiled even in death, showing the bosses that they “weren’t ever going to beat him” and that he was a “natural born world-shaker.”  The film ends with the camera panning out from the prisoners working at a road intersection, which is in the shape of the cross.  Then superimposed is the fake photograph of Luke in “paradise” with the two women.  It had been put back together by the prisoners and the tears are in the shape of a cross too.  Finally, all we see is Luke’s smile from the fake photograph.

Luke certainly had no illusions about himself.  He tells the prisoners the photograph is a fake.  Frustrated at their unwillingness to give up their fantasies constructed on his escapades, he cries out, “Stop feeding off of me.”  At the end in an empty church he talks to God. “It’s beginning to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out.  Inside, outside, all the rules and regulations and bosses.  You made me like I am.  Just where am I supposed to fit in?  Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya.  I started out pretty strong and fast.  But it’s beginnin’ to get to me.  Where does it end?” He kneels and in the silence believes that he has to find his own way.  Dragline comes in.  Luke laughs and asks God whether this is his answer.  Instead of taking up the offer to return to prison, he looks out an open window, mocks the prison captain’s famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” and is fatally wounded by a rifle shot.  The captain refuses to take him to a nearby clinic where he could be saved, claiming, “He’s ours.” Even Luke, that “crazy handful of nothing,” is destroyed.

So what is Cool Hand Luke telling us?  There may be some failure to communicate, perhaps not.  It is not clear whether there is a God or not, and probably that’s intentional.  My take is that Cool Hand Luke presents a world ruled by unreasonable and uncaring tyrants.  The hope of the prisoners is foolish, just as is the religious hope based upon a “plastic Jesus.”  Worse yet, it appears that there might very well be a God who rules the universe and does not hear or see us, but has made us in a way that we don’t fit it.  It is the ultimate tyranny—a universe without purpose in which rebellion is futile, a cosmic prison from which escape is impossible.

Cool Hand Luke is a classic and important movie, no doubt.  But is it cool?  I don’t think so.


2 thoughts on “Cool Hand Luke: Reviewing a Classic

  1. Really great and perceptive, Bill!

    In the movie reviews I have read, they often mention that it is filled with Christ imagery, and that that motif was not uncommon for the 1960s.

    Another image, which you quote but don’t analyze, is that there is an anti-Communion: “Stop feeding off me!”

    1. Thanks, Gary. I did think about the Communion image, but I thought that I’d already written more than people would want to read! Your comment about Christ imagery in the 1960’s is interesting. I wonder, and it really is an “I wonder,” whether in our post-Christian age popular movies struggle with profundity because they no longer are interacting with, even in opposition, with the profundities of the Christian faith.

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