Friday, November 19, 2010

COOL HAND LUKE (1967): An Irreverent Savior

As if there wasn’t already enough madness on the planet, we now have collections of people answering the question, “What would Jesus do?”  I’ve seen bumper stickers stating, “God is pro-life,” thereby implying that Jesus would be the same, and I’ve seen others stating that, “Jesus is a liberal.”  The recently deceased director, Stuart Rosenberg, at least gave an interesting take on this question.  In Cool Hand Luke, he pictured a modern day Jesus being sentenced to a chain gang and stirring up trouble among the prisoners and prison staff.  Luke, played by Paul Newman, was not the Christ figure we were introduced to back in Sunday school.  He’s poor and uneducated and passes his time by breaking all written and unwritten rules.  He’s capable of being charming, but his preference is to be a smart aleck.  He was a war hero while in the army, but he was demoted to private for insubordination.  He gets drunk and cuts off the heads of parking meters in a small southern town to settle an “old score” (thus getting himself sentenced to the chain gang).  He refuses to be impressed with the boisterous talk of the self appointed lead prisoner, Dragline (George Kennedy).  Luke fights Dragline in a prison-boxing match out in the yard, and though badly outmatched refuses to quit fighting.  (Dragline eventually walks away rather than deliver any more punishment.)  Luke out bluffs everyone at poker.  He exhorts the prisoners to work faster so that they can enjoy an hour extra daylight when finished.  He wins the admiration (and money) of all of the prisoners by glutinously consuming 50 eggs in one hour.  He stands in the rain and dares God to strike him dead.  After his mother dies, he makes three escapes from prison (the first two escapes lead to beatings, and the third escape results in his getting shot dead).  Precisely when the prisoners and guards think that Luke has been defeated, he makes his final run for freedom.
The warden (Strother Martin) and the prison guards are not simply content in keeping Luke and the other prisoners locked up.  They want the prisoners to focus on the task at hand and not think about the outside world.  All of the prisoners are to refer to the warden as the “Captain,” and to the guards as “boss.”  One guard, Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), the man with no eyes because he always wore mirrored sunglasses, is particularly feared because he is a good shot with a rifle.  (Boss Godfrey, with his sunglasses, embodied the establishment because no one could see his eyes.)  Boss Paul (Luke Askew) tells the prisoners throughout the movie that they must get their “mind right.”  The fear is that when the mind strays to other topics, the prisoner gets “rabbit in his blood” and then he runs.  It’s impossible to keep track of the thousand rules that the prisoners are supposed to obey without listening closely to the guards.  The rules are to keep the prisoner preoccupied with other things than escape.  Thus, the one single line from the movie that everyone remembers is what the Captain says, trying to sound eloquent, after Luke’s first prison escape: “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”  (The Captain could just as well have been Pontius Pilate for his willingness to punish prisoners “for your own good.”) 
The prisoners are not always much better than the guards.  Dragline at first tries to boss Luke around with his own internal set of rules.  Dogboy (Anthony Zerbe), the prisoner who takes care of the dogs in the kennel, wants to see Luke broken and punished for not being a lackey like himself.  Society (J.D. Cannon), a counterfeiter on the outside, who prides himself on his own intellect, is secretly envious of the uneducated southerner who refuses to do the bidding of anybody else.  And all of the prisoners resent Luke at least for a short while when it appears that Luke has given in to the guards – that is right before he again makes an escape.  Yet the prisoners in the end become Luke’s disciples.
Religious symbolism abounds in this movie.  We see the cross in the intersections of the roads, the telephone poles, the image of Luke lying on a table with his arms stretched out (after the memorable egg eating scene), and also in the way a picture of Luke is torn-up.  The prisoners sweat and toil on the chain gang like the Israelites must have toiled in Egypt back during the time of Moses.  The prisoners, too, are in hopes of finding their own liberator to release them from their bondage.  One of the prisoners, Tramp (Harry Dean Stanton), plays guitar and sings a number of gospel songs, and Luke even plays the banjo and sings a religious tune in remembrance of his recently deceased mother.  After Luke leaves the “box” (a tiny building that prisoners are kept as punishment), he looks like Jesus in his white robe.  Yet Luke doesn’t believe in God, which baffles the prisoners and the guards.  One of the guards is even convinced that the reason Luke is doing hard time on a chain gang is because of his lack of belief.  After his last escape, Luke stands alone in a church holding a conversation with the God that he claims to not believe in.  Like Jesus in Gethsemane, he is unable to come to terms with the deity.  He acknowledges that he [Luke] is a “hard case,” but he asserts that God made him like he was by not dealing him any good cards.  When Dragline suddenly makes his appearance in the church, Luke laughs and asks God if that’s his answer.  Luke then jests that God must be a “hard case” as well.  Luke, after opening the window of the church and seeing all sorts of police and guards, mocks those assembled by saying: “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”  The “man with no eyes” then shoots Luke.  Dragline, when later describing this church incident, tells the other prisoners about Luke and says this: “Cool Hand Luke, hell.  He was a natural born world shaker.”  What Dragline remembered most was Luke’s smile, the smile that was always present, even while Luke was dying.

Cool Hand Luke has been and continues to remain my favorite movie.  The setting fits the plot.  The story takes place in the late 1940s in the south in a poverty stricken area.  The weather, with its sweltering heat from the bright sun, at other times is stormy with thunder and lightening.  The bloodhounds are constantly barking, even when nobody is escaping, and the guards are always looking for some excuse to strike a prisoner.  The casting of the prisoners was flawless.  Beyond whom I’ve already mentioned, we have Clifton James as Carr the floorwalker, Wayne Rogers as Gambler, Ralph Waite as Alibi, Joe Don Baker as Fixer, and Dennis Hopper as Babaludgats.  Most of these actors were unknowns until they got their chance in this movie.  The author of the novel called Cool Hand Luke, Donn Pearce, an ex-felon who spent actual time on a chain gang down in Florida, has a memorable part as a new prisoner called Sailor.  Stuart Rosenberg, who up to this point had only directed some individual episodes of television series like The Untouchables and Bonanza, would never direct another television show again after the showing of Cool Hand Luke.  (He did later direct The Laughing Policeman, starring Walter Matthau, a fun and twisted little drama, which was disliked by critics and loved by audiences.)   Rosenberg was one of those rare directors able to bring out incredible meaning in a movie primarily aimed at a popular audience. 
I read one critic refer to Cool Hand Luke as a flawed masterpiece.  Generally, a movie is called “flawed” because it conveys a message of some kind or another that makes the critic uncomfortable.  Cool Hand Luke makes too much fun of sacred cows not to offend someone’s sensibilities.  But outside of its irreverence, there are a number of other reasons why I’ve watched it over and over.  The movie provides a remarkable portrait of a warm human being whose magnificence runs contrary to all of our preconceived notions of what greatness truly is.  Luke shows tremendous courage, an independent thought process, and a disconcerting sense of humor.  Outside of his mother (Jo Van Fleet), Luke probably does not admire anyone – not because he is a cold person but because the world of men has let him down.  He’s constantly engaging in activity that anyone else would understand would get him in trouble.  He doesn’t want to be told how to believe or behave.  He acknowledges that the world is too large for him to change, but that does not prevent him from deriding everything that fails to make sense.

Now assessments of others’ character can be problematic, and we have to be careful to judge others too quickly.   Still, I would say that Luke was a one of a kind person, and his unconventional approach to getting himself sentenced to a chain gang, his attitude towards religion, and his absolute inability to take any rule seriously lead me to this conclusion.  Emerson once said, “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”*  I’m guessing that how one reacts to this quote would also determine how one would react to Luke as a person.  The people I’ve known who did not care much for the movie, Cool Hand Luke, would probably interpret the proud separateness of Luke to instead be proud stupidity.  There’s no question that Luke would have greatly improved his chances of surviving the chain gang ordeal if he had just given in to the demands of the Captain and the guards.  Yet where would the beauty have been in that?  The greatness of a man is dependent upon their ability to distinguish himself from his background.  Though Luke’s life was cut short, he was no martyr.  Martyrs died for the causes of others while Luke lived (and died) to be free not to have to follow others’ causes.  Luke didn’t much care for the prisoners that he ultimately gave hope to, but he helped them whatever were his intentions.  Personally, I’d prefer a person who does what he has to without having to shout out some lofty goal.  Luke didn’t like being told what to do, and his refusal to give in showed his strength of character.
The film Cool Hand Luke was released in 1967 and started a trend of movies portraying unconventional heroes for their leads.  Many imitations of this movie have followed including some very good ones.  Prison and institution movies for example like Papillon or Runaway Train are extremely powerful, though neither movie is as joyful or humorous as Cool Hand LukeOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which came out almost ten years later, is identical in plotline to Cool Hand Luke, but Randolph McMurphy to me is more sinister and less sympathetic than Luke – though Cuckoo’s Nest is still an incredible achievement.  (Whereas Luke simply wants to break away and be on his own, McMurphy finds joy in manipulating other people.)  When I watch Cool Hand Luke, the mannerisms and laughter of Luke are remarkably similar to those of someone I know very well, and Cool Hand Luke is therefore extremely real to me.  The emotions elicited are natural because nothing in this movie is overstated.  If the movie had been more manipulative, it would have become dated like so many forgotten movies and songs that were produced in the late 1960s.  Fortunately, Cool Hand Luke is still relevant.
* A movie critic took this Emerson quote out of context.  This critic, who passionately identified herself with a political party, who also claimed to be a non-conformist, and who failed to note that the Emerson quote came from an essay called Self Reliance, couldn’t recognize any inconsistency.  I attempted to correspond with her and received the usual non-response.

April 2, 2007
© Robert S. Miller 2007

1 comment:

  1. Newman, Kennedy and Martin are great in this film. It's neat to see such a strong supporting cast.