Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.
Release Date: November 1st, 1967 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Stuart Rosenberg Actors: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Robert Drivas, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, Clifton James, Lou Antonio
ool Hand Luke” demonstrates the star power of Paul Newman in a famed role of rebellion, defiance, and nonconformity. Going against the grain with ambiguous beliefs but steadfast energy, which refuses to be bent to the will of authority, Luke is destined to stir things up and influence his fellow inmates, while simultaneously living and suffering for the lot of them (bearing similarities here and there to the story of Christ). He may only have one tragic way out of a system designed to suppress his natural disregard for ordinance, but what his character represents still reigns triumphant.
Luke (Paul Newman) is a “natural born world-shaker,” sent to a rural prison for cutting the tops off parking meters. Though it appears to be a trivial offense against municipal property, he’s given a harsh two-year sentence. Immediately revealing his inability to conform to rules and regulations, Luke ends up on the wrong side of the Captain (Strother Martin), who intends to smoothly discipline all of the chain gang prisoners under his command. When Luke escapes, he only manages to incite the wrath of Captain and the other “bosses” who take pleasure in breaking down the will of a rebellious insurgent.
A catchy theme song opens “Cool Hand Luke,” a film that not only turns prison life into dramatic entertainment (something of a precursor to “The Shawshank Redemption”), but also capitalizes on dissecting the motives of a man who lives by his own system, governed by his own personal statutes, and doomed by his own inability to plot out a future. Distraught by the failing health of his mother, Luke is pushed to the limits with the ultimate convict punishment: the “Box” – a tiny, isolated, one-man cell like the lockup Colonel Nicholson endures in “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” This act of unfairness (or for Luke’s own good) ignites a series of escape attempts that causes the other prisoners to view him as a champion. Like Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” Luke imparts a stirring individuality to his comrades, and they worship him like a hero – even though he never truly understands why he is revered and certainly doesn’t want their admiration.
Early on, Luke is subjected to a boxing bout with Dragline (George Kennedy), a leader of the other prisoners, who is unaccustomed to newcomers speaking their minds. When Luke fails to give up, even after he has clearly been beaten, viewers can see what truly drives him: an unwavering refusal to be bested by anything – not the opponent in a sporting event, not physical improbabilities like a memorable egg-eating contest, and certainly not an arbitrary operative of authority. He does the real living for the rest of the prisoners who have given in to the system, but in turn suffers for them as well. When Luke finally succumbs to the Captain’s tortures, those who formerly worshipped him like a demigod shift toward feelings of betrayal – except from Dragline, who believes Luke’s cracking under pressure was all a show (like the poignant finale of “Angels with Dirty Faces”).
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” insists Strother Martin, landing a potent line that would become frequently quoted and celebrated as one of the most iconic of movie moments. The film went on to be nominated for four 1967 Oscars (including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor for Newman), with George Kennedy winning for his supporting role. It would also become widely regarded as an archetype of ‘60s counterculture in cinema, particularly with its nuanced messages of discontent and recalcitrance, conspicuous humor, and the unforgettable performance by Paul Newman.
– Mike Massie