If you’ve never seen or heard of this film and are a Guns N Roses fan, chances are you’ll have heard its most famous line (The Prison Captain saying “What we got here is…failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it… well, he gets it. I don’t like it any more than you men”)…It appears in the song Civil War, if you have only heard Appetite For Destruction…So anyway. lets talk about it.
Cool Hand Luke is a prison drama set in the deep south of the USA in the early 1950s and stars Paul Newman as Lucas Jackson, a decorated Korean War Veteran who is arrested by the police for cutting off the heads of parking meters while completely plastered. His actions led to him being sent to prison for 2 years, and it’s not just any prison, this is a deep south prison, with chain gangs who go out during the day to do hard labour in the hot sun (in this, it would be the cutting of long grass and covering tarred roads with dirt.) Compared to the other men he was brought in with, Luke comes across like a man who is in for stealing a packet of biscuits from an old lady. But this doesn’t stop him from playing it cool in a circumstance that would otherwise present him as the prison bike in other types of prison movies from the ’90s onwards. As part of the prison’s attempts to control any violence that could break out, Saturday mornings are reserved for settling grudges in boxing matches, and on this particular Saturday, Cool Hand Luke receives a nasty beating from the leader of the prisoners, a large man simply known as Dragline (played by George Kennedy). When Luke refuses to stay down, it earns him respect. And this respect is escalated further when Luke takes on a bet that he could eat 50 hard boiled eggs in an hour (A famous scene that was well edited, and then attempted in real life in an episode of Jackass). Prison life isn’t too bad for Luke, until he finds out that his mother (who appeared earlier in the film and played by Jo Van Fleet) had passed away. Leading to the prison officials putting Luke in “The Box” (a container that’s designated for badly behaved prisoners as punishment) to keep him from escaping…But after his time in the box, this is when Luke becomes a real troublemaker for the prison authority.
On the surface, Cool Hand Luke comes across as 1 of those “Rise Up And Fight ‘The Man” films like Spartacus, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Shawshank Redemption (All brilliant in their own right), but in reality it’s much, much deeper than that. Despite the rather colourful collection of Prison authority (including the iconic Boss Godfrey, the silent man with the mirrored sunglasses played by Morgan Woodward) they came across as surprisingly fair. A group of men focused on doing their jobs, even if they come across as hard on the trouble makers. We can sometimes forget that these men are in prison, and in some ways, any hardship is part of them receiving “Justice”. On top of this, there is a great humanity among the prisoners, and for those who like to play “spot the actor in their younger days”, you’ll notice a young Harry Dean Stanton (a great cult character actor who likes small but memorable roles) and Dennis Hopper (who has no dialogue in this film outside of singing “Old McDonald Had A Farm” in the shower). As good as Paul Newman was as Luke, for me the star of the show was actually George Kennedy as Dragline (a large, strong, loud, friendly man with a powerful libido, as seen in the “car wash scene”). I remember George for his appearances in the Naked Gun trilogy as Captain Ed Hocken, but this is the first time I’ve seen him outside of that role, and you know what? He’s brilliant! He might not look pretty, but the man has an incredible presence and charisma on screen – and to top it off, he was in his 7th year as an actor when this came out (1st role was uncredited in Spartacus). It was a well-deserved academy award for best supporting actor. What do I think of Luke himself? Well, he’s a very angry man for 1 thing, and believes he has been given a bad deal in life. I can understand the anger intensifying when you’re seemingly punished for your own mother’s death, but another part of me thinks “2 years! You’re in there for 2 years! Andy Dufresne was there for 19 years and was innocent! You’re there for vandalism! You’re not a hero!” Newman does a great job making a likeable character, but I also think this likeable character’s a bit overrated in his likability. If he was sentenced for life, I can understand his “nothing to lose” behaviour. But…seriously, 2 years…and I guess that’s 1 thing I can like about the film, is that the guards technically aren’t at fault when it comes to their approach with Luke later on. Are they corrupt? Not really, they’re telling him to behave himself and sometimes use extra work or force to get their point across. When behaved, it looks more comfortable.
Now onto the technical hoo-haa. This film looks great! Some great camera filters, great editing for the time, and excellent use of cinematography.
The music score is small, but excellent, incorporating ’60s orchestra with some jazz drums and piano and even some hilly billy fiddle. It also contains some nice guitar scores, lounge jazz, and strong brass. The music that’s played during the tar road scene is also the theme song of 2 TV stations…which is odd.
The characters, acting and story are all excellent as well, with some characters being iconic and memorable, while others demonstrated character without saying very much. There were no bad actors in sight, and while the violence is tame in comparison to a lot of movies today, what is written down is still very powerful, and I can only imagine how brutal these scenes would be if a current director tried to recreate them. As for the suggested Christian Symbolism throughout the film that puts Luke in a Christ-like role, I say “Sure, it may be somewhat inspired. But that’s all it is, a loose borrow.”
Would I recommend Cool Hand Luke? Absolutely! The film is nearly 50 years old now, and even though the violence is a bit tame now, don’t let that put you off. The film is very well written, with excellent characters, a fantastic background setting, great acting from everybody, a memorable score and some great editing and cinematography, not only then but today. The humanity aspect is excellent, and when there’s humour, there’s still a certain timelessness to it.