Friday 5 April 2019

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Skrappe Luke
Prison movies is one of the larger genres on the List and many of them are pretty good. They typically fall into three categories: a) the horrors of prison, b) escape from prison or c) both. “Cool Hand Luke” is both or maybe it is actually none, because the story may be about something altogether different.

A few, unspecified, years after second world war, Luke (Paul Newman) gets arrested for cutting parking meters off their poles while drunk. I am not an expert in law, but unless Luke is a repeat offender such a crime is a fine and a slap on the hand. Not so in this story. Luke is sentenced to two years of hard labor in a chain gang. A bit harsh.

The chain gang is supposed to be somewhere in the South and is populated by mean ass staff and a rowdy group of inmates. As is often the case in this type of movie the staff appears to be far worse people than the prisoners. Their intent is obviously to break the prisoners of their free will so they become manageable and know their place. And here is the problem: Luke refuses to be broken and get up every time he is beaten. Rules and regulations sit poorly with him. We see that spelled out when Luke and Dragline (George Kennedy) has a boxing match. No matter how often or how hard Dragline hits Luke, he keeps coming back up. He simply refuses to give up. In the poker game and the legendary egg eating contest Luke is so outside the norm that he gains the respect of the other inmates, especially Dragline who becomes his close friend. Even the staff seems to respect Luke.

That only lasts till Luke starts running away. They always catch him eventually, but in the process the prison warden and his staff are humiliated. Their projection of being all powerful and untouchable are repeatedly shattered by Luke and their attempts at breaking him are futile. That makes them manic with rage and their revenge on Luke is gruesome.

This movie is all about challenging the system. That it takes place in a prison is merely a coincidence. Luke is the challenge and the prison staff cannot deal with the challenge, because in their understanding they cannot be challenged. This makes a lot of sense when you then consider that this is a 1967 movie, a time period where the system, any system, is being challenged. It is early in that process and the system fights back, but characters like Luke are rallying point for rebellion against the system, whether it is the educational system, anti-war and arms movements, women’s or minority rights and so on. The weaker part can bend but not break and so the system eventually losses its moral high ground if it wants to maintain that it cannot be challenged.

Paul Newman is phenomenal as Cool Hand Luke. He owns that role. But what is amazing here is how the producers went out of their way to cast even minor roles. There are so many characters in this prison, on both sides, that in no way all of them can take an active part, yet every single one of them is a distinct individual with a story and a personality. You feel there are plenty of stories here and we are only scratching the surface. We are also getting a number of memorable scenes and quotes, the most famous of which are probably the egg eating scene (at which point I realized I actually saw this movie some time, ages ago) and the “This is a failure to communicate”. A brilliant quote which transcends the movie and describes the situation where the system reacts violently instead of talking because talking would be to admit to being challenged.

Then of course there is the beautiful filming which made me happy for my Blue-ray edition. The vistas are set in stark contract to the dismal lives of the prisoners and every scene is intelligently thought out.

Highly recommended.


  1. This is my brother-in-law's favorite movie. He believes that it is the movie with the hottest average temperature per scene ever filmed. I'd be hard-pressed to disagree with that.

    It's a great one, no doubt.

    1. He probably has a point. I doubt there is a single scene where the cast does not look sweaty.
      A great one indeed.

  2. Loved your review and am looking forward to this one.

    The plot description for the next movie on my 1966 list is "At a boarding school in the pre-war Austro-Hungarian Empire, a pair of students torture one of their fellow classmates, Basini, who has been caught stealing money from one of the two. The two decide that rather than turn Basini in to the school authorities, they will punish him themselves and proceed to torture, degrade, and humiliate the boy, with ever-increasing sadistic delight. As each day passes, the two boys are able to justify harsher treatment than previously given."

    Is it any wonder I keep falling farther and farther behind? Maybe I'll go through the list and just watch what I feel like watching.

    1. That sounds truly horrible. Are you certain you need to watch that?
      I still need another 10 movies for 1967, which translates to two month or so. That is still some time to catch up.