Cool Hand Luke (1967) is the moving character study of a non-conformist, anti-hero loner who bullheadedly resists authority and the Establishment. One of the film's posters carried a tagline related to the character's rebelliousness:
"The man...and the motion picture that simply do not conform."
With this vivid film, director Stuart Rosenberg made one of the key films of the 1960s, a decade in which protest against established powers was a key theme. One line of the film's dialogue from Strother Martin is often quoted: "What we've got here is...failure to communicate."
This superb, crowd-pleasing film was based upon a screenplay co-authored by ex-convict Donn Pearce (and Frank R. Pierson), from Pearce's own novel of the same name. The main character Luke (played by Paul Newman) was inspired by real-life convicted safecracker Donald Graham Garrison. Telly Savalas was originally considered for the role, and Bette Davis was also considered for the part of Luke's mother. The chain-gang prison film (e.g.,I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)) has a long history in American films, and this one also provided entertaining performances, especially with Paul Newman in one of his best roles as masochistic Luke, after playing similar anti-heroes in The Hustler (1961) and Hud (1963). Other stars who played convicts in the chain gang in smaller roles included Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Ralph Waite, Wayne Rogers, Joe Don Baker, and Anthony Zerbe.
Rich religious symbolism, references and imagery are deeply embedded within the narrative, with some critics arguing that Luke represents a modern-day, messianic Christ figure who ministers to a group of disciples and refuses to give up under oppression. The film's theme - of an outsider-protagonist who transforms the occupants of a Southern chain gang institution and tragically sacrifices himself at the end - resembles the anti-hero character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975).
The film was nominated for four Academy Awards: Best Actor (Paul Newman, who lost to Rod Steiger in In the Heat of the Night (1967)), Best Supporting Actor (George Kennedy in a break-out role), Best Adapted Screenplay (Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson), and Best Original Music Score (Lalo Schifrin) and won only for Best Supporting Actor.The Story
In the opening scene, set in the South in 1948 [the film was shot on location in Stockton, California], Lucas "Luke" Jackson (Paul Newman) is arrested for the minor offenses of being drunk and destroying two long rows of parking meters in a defiant act of rebellion. As he lazily cuts off the heads of the meters with a pipe cutter, the red, two-hour time limit VIOLATION warning pops up, foreshadowing his own imminent arrest. Luke is detached toward police when they arrive at the scene and arrest him for social defiance - under a streetlight's glare, he laughs at them with a big grin. The next scene, playing under the credits, is of the typical, grueling road work forced upon prisoners - an imprisonment which reflects the authentic horrors of life on a chain gang in a Southern prison.
The vehicle bringing Luke and three other prisoners to a correctional Southern prison is reflected in the mirror-lens sunglasses of one of the guards. In a lineup in front of the main prison guard, the authoritarian Captain (Strother Martin), the new inmates are taught obedience: "You call the Captain 'Captain'...and you call the rest of us 'Boss', you hear?" [The scene has been compared to Christ's appearance before Pontius Pilate.] Luke is there for "maliciously destroyin' municipal property while under the influence." The soft-voiced Captain is astonished at the uniqueness of Luke's irreverent crime: "We ain't never had one of them before." Luke describes his own feelings about destroying bureaucratic, regulatory property: "I guess you could say I wasn't thinkin', Captain." Although he performed well in the war, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and a couple of Purple Hearts, and attained the rank of Sergeant, he "come out the same way" he went in: "Buck Private." Ultimately alienated, Luke had often fought the system - and lost: "I was just passin' time, Captain."
The reticent loner is given a two year sentence to work on a chain gang (Division of Corrections, Road Prison 36) with forty-nine other prisoners. He is instructed in the preliminary line-up:
You gonna fit in real good, of course, unless you get rabbit in your blood and you decide to take off for home. You give the bonus system time and a set of leg chains to keep you slowed down just a little bit, for your own good, you'll learn the rules. Now, it's all up to you. Now I can be a good guy, or I can be one real mean son-of-a-bitch. It's all up to you.
Luke is placed in an isolated environment with strict rules, guards, and regimentation and his fiercely individualistic spirit immediately clashes.
In the bunk house, a litany of rules are delivered by a strutting, cigar-chomping, broad-waisted, white-uniformed guard-floor walker named Carr (Clifton James). Each infraction is rewarded with "a night in the box":
Them clothes got laundry numbers on 'em. You remember your number and always wear the ones that has your number. Any man forgets his number spends the night in the box. These here spoons, you keep with ya. Any man loses his spoon spends a night in the box. There's no playin' grab-ass or fightin' in the building. You got a grudge against another man, you fight him Saturday afternoon. Any man playin' grab-ass or fightin' in the building spends a night in the box. First bell is at five minutes of eight...Last bell is at eight. Any man not in his bunk at eight spends a night in the box. There's no smokin' in the prone position in bed. If you smoke, you must have both legs over the side of your bunk. Any man caught smokin' in the prone position in bed spends the night in the box. You'll get two sheets. Every Saturday, you put the clean sheet on the top and the top sheet on the bottom. The bottom sheet you turn into the laundry boy. Any man turns in the wrong sheet spends a night in the box. No one will sit in the bunks with dirty pants on. Any man with dirty pants on sittin' on the bunks spends a night in the box. Any man don't bring back his empty pop bottle spends a night in the box. Any man loud-talkin' spends a night in the box. You got questions, you come to me...Any man don't keep order spends a night in the box.
Carr immediately senses Luke's cool contempt: "I hope you ain't gonna be a hard case." Hulking boss convict Dragline (George Kennedy) bullies one of the new convicts with his own top-dog attitude: "Boy, you're new meat. You're gonna have to shape up fast and hard for this gang. We got rules here. In order to learn 'em, you gotta do more work with your ears than with your mouth." Luke soon draws the attention of Dragline and is eyed suspiciously as a con-artist - he is treated as a hostile, spirited and flippant outsider. The newcomer is advised: "You don't have a name here until Dragline gives you one." As the acknowledged leader of the gang, Dragline has a preliminary name for Luke and they have their first sparring:
Dragline: (About Luke) Maybe we ought to call it No Ears. (To Luke) You don't listen much, do ya, boy?
Luke: I ain't heard that much worth listenin' to. There's a lot of guys layin' down a lot of rules and regulations.
At dawn, the shackled men quickly assemble to be driven to work. During the drive in the van, Dragline continues to belittle Luke, the "war hero," about his crime:
Dragline: Tearin' the heads off of, what was it, gumball machines? What kind of thing is that of a grown man?
Luke: Well, you know how it is. Small town. Not much to do in Eaton. Mostly was just settlin' an old score.
In the searing hot sun, the road-gang convicts endure back-breaking physical labor - chopping dusty weeds by the side of the highway. The men must ask permission, e.g., "Takin' it off, boss," when they want to do something out of the ordinary, such as remove articles of clothing in the heat. They are closely eyed by one of the impassive, impersonal yet sadistic guards - the 'man with no eyes' Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward) - a nameless boss with reflective sunglasses who never speaks. Their main mid-day meal is a pile of beans and a slab of cornbread. Even Luke's eating habits are distinctively non-conformist - he takes a bite and leaves the spoon sticking out of his mouth.
One of the new inmates, Gibson complains about his job assignment (after being promised to switch to an easier job in a set-up) - he is given "a chance to think about it" with an overnight stay in the box - "a very valuable lesson." Dragline disavows responsibility for the cruel joke, but Luke is tersely sarcastic:
Dragline: He ain't in the box because of the joke played on him. He back-sassed a free man. They got their rules. We ain't got nothin' to do with that. Would probably have happened to him sooner or later anyway - a complainer like him. He gotta learn the rules the same as anybody else.
Luke: Yeah, them poor old Bosses need all the help they can get.
Dragline: You tryin' to say somethin'? You got a flappin' mouth. (His words are drowned out by the last bell). One of these days, I'm gonna have to flap me up some dust with it.
Carr accounts for all of the 50 prisoners after the last bell: "Forty-nine, one in the box, Boss."
One day while the men are digging a ditch in the scorching sun, a blonde-haired, shapely and sexy young woman (Joy Harmon) in a neighboring house prepares to wash her car, sending the men into a voyeuristic frenzy. She brings out a radio and turns it on, signalling the beginning of her sexual act. One of the convicts asks permission to clean his glasses: "Wipin' off here, boss." As she opens up the nozzle on her watering hose, a particularly-apt phallic symbol, the men perk up and attentively spy "the scenery."One of the prisoners can't endure the lustful suffering she is creating: "Oh man, oh man, I'm dyin'." One man can't endure the lustful suffering she creates: "Oh man, oh man, I'm dyin'." The woman wets down the car and then lathers and caresses white, frothy soap suds over the car's surfaces. She tempts and stimulates the men even further in the symbolic simulation of the sex act. She looks into the car's rear view mirror and into one of the tire's shiny hubcaps to look back to see how the men are being pleasured.
Her loose-fitting blouse with well-endowed breasts begins to open up and taunt them. Gambler (Wayne Rogers) observes: "She ain't got nothin' but, nothin' but one safety pin holdin' that thing on. Come on safety pin, POP. Come on baby, POP." The men dig more vigorously as she heightens her own cleansing activity. Dragline prays to the heavens to sustain his eyesight just a little longer for the girl he names Lucille: "Hey Lord, whatever I done, don't strike me blind for another couple of minutes. My Lucille!...That's Lucille, you mother-head. Anything so innocent and built like that just gotta be named Lucille." Knowing that she has a ripe and attentive audience, the blonde rubs the car harder and harder. In the most blatantly sexual act of all - the orgasmic conclusion to her show - she squeezes the white foam out of her sponge and rubs the soap suds across her abdomen. Luke (Paul Newman) knows what she is doing:
Convict: She don't know what she's doin'.
Luke: Oh boy, she knows exactly what she's doin'. She's drivin' us crazy and lovin' every minute of it.
Dragline: Shut your mouth about my Lucille.
She gently drinks from the end of the penis-shaped hose. While washing the roof of the car, her soaped-up, ample breasts are squeezed as they rub back and forth across the car's window.
Later that evening while the men take a communal shower, their frustrated and already-heightened sexual-aggressive tendencies flare up. In the hot-house barracks as the men lie in their bunks, they sweat profusely. Dragline remembers the afternoon's entertainment and fantasizes while frustrating the other prison-mates: "Did you see how she was just about POP-in' out of the top of that dress...And down below, man, that thing didn't reach no higher than...She liable to catch cold runnin' around like that. It was stretched so tight across her bottom, I do believe I saw one of them seams bust loose. And the openin' got wider and wider and wider." Luke brings him back to reality, causing Dragline to take a particular disliking toward him:
Luke: Forget it, man.
Dragline: Whaddya mean, forget it?
Luke: Stop beatin' it into the ground. It ain't doin' nobody no good.
Dragline: OK, new meat. You get some sleep. And save your strength, cause you're gonna need it. Tomorrow.
The ventilation fan in the bunkhouse spins and cuts to the next day's weekly boxing sparring, where Luke is challenged to a showdown - the weekly knock-down, drag-out boxing fight in front of the other men. Characteristic of his indomitable spirit, in the middle of a circle of convicts, Luke is severely bloodied and beaten by Dragline but won't stay down. The other convicts sensibly advise him to stop and survive the epic pounding: "Just stay down, Luke. He's just gonna knock ya down again, buddy...It's not your fault. He's just too big...Let him hit you in the nose and get some blood flowing. Maybe the bosses will stop it before he kills you." Mockingly, strong-willed Luke replies: "I don't want to frighten him."
Ignoring their suggestions, Luke taunts Dragline as he doggedly keeps fighting without surrendering. In the bloody fray, he takes the brutal punishment upon himself, suffering for their entertainment at first, and then taking the blows that could lead to his own death. Repelled by Luke's mindless, 'who-cares' attitude, Dragline eventually implores Luke to drop and quit so that he won't be killed:
Dragline: Stay down. You're beat.
Luke: You're gonna have to kill me.
By not submitting his spirit, Luke 'wins' the fight when his opponent walks away, although Dragline convincingly overpowers him physically. Luke's iron will earns the grudging respect of Dragline and other convicts.
He also proves himself a hero and endears himself to the inmates during a poker game. With a winning hand of 'nothin', easy-going, stone-faced Luke successfully bluffs his opponent. After winning the pot, Luke is anointed with his prison name:
Dragline (laughing): Nothin'. A handful of nothin'. (To the losing, card-playing convict) You stupid mullet-head. He [Luke] beat you with nothin'. Just like today when he kept comin' back at me - with nothin'.
Luke: Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real Cool Hand.
[Luke's dependence on "nothin'" and the many parallels between Luke and Jesus Christ recall the Biblical reference in Luke 1:37: "For with God, nothing shall be impossible." Luke's prisoner number was also 37.]
Dragline begins to establish a friendship, luxuriating in the reflective glory of Luke's exuberant victories. He develops a nickname for Luke - while sliding over near him: "Move over. I'm gonna sit in here next to my boy - Cool Hand Luke." The label signifies Luke's cool-headed, independent, individualistic spirit that won't submit to the powers that be.
The Laws of God, The Laws of Man:
Power, Authority, and Influence in ‘‘Cool Hand Luke’’
Movies set in prisons usually dramatize ways in which crime does not pay and criminals do. Beyond that public service, prison-settings afford film-makers ample range to juxtapose life inside institutions with life outside. Such films can haunt film-goers if society's crimes against cinematic outlaws parallel society's treatment of everyday innocents or if sinned-against too greatly resemble sinners.
In this essay, I consider one such haunting film, Cool Hand Luke. Cool Hand Luke overtly contrasts prisoners with imprisoners to the detriment of the latter if not the glory of the former. Beyond that contrast, so familiar that it long ago lost its irony, Cool Hand Luke exposes an ‘‘economy’’ of communication by which repression is rationalized and conformity justified to create walls figurative and political within which film-watchers are interned and interred. An obvious message of this Sixties classic is that we should distrust all whose talk of justice accessorizes their powerful impulse to punish. A subtler message of the film concerns crimes that ‘‘madmen in authority’’ commit every day and the glory and the folly of those who resist and demystify those crimes.
FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE
The straightforward story-line of Cool Hand Luke encourages cursory interpretation. Lucas Jackson, imprisoned for a petty violation, impresses members of his chain-gang by resisting the brutish convict ‘‘Dragline.’’ Once he has proved his mettle, he becomes ‘‘Cool Hand Luke,’’ an inmate who can out-work, out-eat, and out-blaspheme other men condemned to hard labor. When Luke bucks prison officials, they undertake to bring him into line. He escapes twice but they catch him and torture him. Just when Luke has been broken by his tormentors and stripped of the respect of worshipful inmates, he escapes a last time and induces a malevolent, masked boss to shoot him dead. Martyrdom re-establishes Luke's legend among prisoners and viewers.
True, such a story rehearses an establishment-bashing recipe hackneyed by the 1960s. First, induce sympathy for an anti-hero who challenges unimportant or unjust rules. Next, relate the rules to a social structure in which ‘‘. . . every cop is a criminal / And all your sinners saints.’’ Then drive self-parodying defenders of conformity to destroy the anti-hero, who long since has been apotheosized into a lovable rogue exposing the inanities of his and our time. Roll the credits as film-goers return to lives of quiet desecration.
If Cool Hand Luke did no more than follow the recipe above, critics would be correct to score the film for petty existentialism, trendy alienation, and cheap impieties. With due respect to critics, I do believe that such criticisms miss more of the movie than they hit. Cool Hand Luke extols a theory of expressive and repressive crimes. Indeed, the movie and the theory interrelate crime and punishment, power and powerlessness, and permanence and change, all through failures to communicate. Cool Hand Luke is about Camus but about Orwell as well.
A Failure to Communicate
When ‘‘The Captain’’ [Strother Martin playing the highest official in the road-prison] drawls out the most enduring line of the movie, audiences tend to chuckle at incongruities between his utterance and his situation.
[The Captain stands to the side as a Boss fastens leg-irons on Lucas Jackson, recently
captured after his first escape.]
You gonna git used to wearin' them chains aftera while, Luke, but you never stop listenin' to them clinkin'. That's gonna remind you of what I been sayin'. For your own good.
Wish you'd stop bein' so good to me, Captain.
Don't you never talk that way to me! . . .
[after striking Luke and impelling him down a small slope, The Captain regains his composure and addresses the other convicts:]
What we've 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! And I don't like it any better than you men.
This famously fatuous confrontation sets up the picture's predictable denouement:
[Dragline, a convict, stands in the doorway of a small church, speaking to Lucas Jackson, who is surveying police cars surrounding the chapel.]
They caught up to me right after we split up and they was aimin' to kill you, Luke. But I got 'em to promise, if you give up peaceful, they wouldn't even whip you this time.
[flashing his familiar smile]
Do we even get our same bunks back?
Why sure, Luke. . . . They're reasonable, Luke . . .
[Luke smirks at Dragline's assessment, then opens the window of the sanctuary and surveys the assembled officials before he raises his voice.]
WHAT WE GOT HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE. . . .
[Instantly, a shot rings out and Luke staggers under the impact of a slug that spatters his blood across the window. Shot in the throat, Luke no longer speaks but nonetheless smiles.]
Let us concede that the repeated catch-phrase encourages viewers to glide across the surface of Cool Hand Luke as if it concerned only gaps between generations or between officials and citizens. The film's makers may have suffered their own failure to communicate due to the very accessibility of this ‘‘hook.’’ If, as I believe, this movie may also be seen as a fable about power, authority, and influence, Cool Hand Luke embraces far more than sophomoric sentimentality.
Communicating Power, Influence, and Authority
We may get more out of Cool Hand Luke if we observe in the film three basic, political relations: influence, authority, and power. David V. J. Bell has defined each relation in terms of the mode of communication distinctive of each. Bell admits that these three are ambiguous terms that invoke overlapping ideas. Still, he insists that we may profitably distinguish among communications that
a) threaten or promise in order to induce an audience to do what otherwise they would not do [power];
b) command based on position and an expectation of being obeyed [authority]; and/or
c) persuade by revealing to an audience where their own interests lie [influence].
Stealing from Sheldon Wolin, I propose that these three relations offer those who battle crime and criminals an ‘‘economy of violence.’’ We may state this economics simply: prudent decision-makers will want to employ nonviolent influence as often as it gets the job done; to rely on routine authority when influence would be inefficient or insufficient; and to brandish power as an ultimate resort. Let us explore this economics briefly.
Influence ennobles both listeners by acknowledging their agency and speakers by casting them as a fiduciaries. Influence fixes most responsibility on the decision-maker and appears to overcome or to ignore hierarchy and to level speaker and listener. For an example pertinent to this film, please consider the degree to which penal rehabilitation encourages trust and thereby at least a temporary identification and convergence between captors and captives. We should expect great reliance on influence whenever prison personnel are helping rather than herding.
Authority cannot but diminish the moral responsibility of the listener once incorporated because authority entails command and command presumes hierarchy. An entitlement to be obeyed, moreover, must be demonstrated if a purveyor of authority is challenged. Routine supervision requires guards and orderlies to exercise authority, so ordinary control is ubiquitous in institutional life. In prisons, penal discipline is essential, for wardens and guards must herd if they are to help. Nonetheless, overuse of authority may fan resentment and resistance, so prudent guards will invoke influence to quell indignation.
Emergencies may call for power, but overt manipulation of sanctions menace followers and leaders alike by raising leaders too far above followers and reducing human beings to thralls. The greater the distance from which threats and promises cascade, the greater their impact on those at the bottom. Even a lowly listener who flips off the phrase ‘‘It's your world’’ may mumble to himself or herself an ominous ‘‘. . . for now.’’ Use of power shades into abuse of power so quickly that leaders may not perceive their transmogrification into tyrants. When influence fails and authority falters, leaders will turn to power but the corruptions power works are close behind. When power corrupts absolutely or relatively, some listeners—imprisoned or free—move beyond resentment and resistance to revolt and revenge. To consider again the example of prisons, penal repression is both necessity and luxury. Those who would help must herd, but those who herd will hurt.
Both power and authority are useful, so both will be used. Because both are costly, both will often be disguised as influence. Threats or bribes left implicit are tribute from power to influence. Commands courteously phrased as suggestions husband sincere but officious authority for occasions when more respectful influence falls short of speakers' objectives. To conclude with an example outside prisons, parents and other teachers may overpower their charges and order them about for a while, but enlightening their sense of self-interest encourages civility and inculcates citizenship.
Power, Authority, and Influence in Prison
Certainly, Bell's insights apply to law and legal relations, especially in penal institutions that must attend to repression and discipline before rehabilitation becomes a priority. Although prisons worry less about justification and more about order than more genteel institutions, even prisons can depend neither on unrelenting restraints nor on unrestricted reinforcement. Universal repression creates a Hobbesian battle-zone that cannot be sustained without troops and materiel. Less repressive power, such as granting and withholding favors, works when employed sparingly but becomes expensive, especially if leaders are expected to monitor followers and administer negative and positive sanctions equitably and consistently. Legal orders outside prisons build on and attempt to justify violence through regularity and responsiveness because sanctions are so extravagant.
Instead of the brutality and bribery of power, we expect wardens and guards in penal institutions to formulate rules and norms that inmates may internalize. We expect law to be predictable in the wider society, and, if we harbor any hopes for rehabilitation or socialization, we want inmates and citizens to learn to abide by similar rules and norms. At entry to prison, de jure and de facto norms are authority with power neither far behind nor well hidden. Over time, such norms may come to make sense to internees and may even be seen by them to express their best interests. If so, rules may become influence, at least for some subjects some of the time.
If genuine influence cannot be attained, superordinates have an interest in appearing readier to counsel than to command or to coerce. If officials can convincingly claim to be pursuing the interests of charges, influence is a happier relationship that reduces officers' ‘‘social altitude.’’ If the economy of power, authority, and influence works in prisons as well as in wider society, then, we should expect power and authority to pose as influence.
COOL HAND LUKE AND PSEUDO-INFLUENCE
Cool Hand Luke concerns power and authority posing as influence far more than critics have apprehended. Granted, this movie takes stances that we associate with puerile exuberance. However, adolescents are most likely to feel the sting of power and authority exercised ‘‘for their own good.’’ Let us reconsider Cool Hand Lukeboth in its immediate context  and in its enduring context [the economy of violence outlined above]. To assist us in remembering restraints that most post-adolescents have long ago accepted, I intersperse lines from a poem written by A. E. Housman when I believe that they spotlight important themes in Cool Hand Luke. If similar attitudes danced in the heads of a poet in 1922 and moviemakers in 1967, we must suspect that those attitudes are less trendy and more enduring than reviewers appreciated.
The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
An Inventory of Motifs
Barely has Warner Brothers's logo faded when white letters spelling ‘‘VIOLATION’’ fill an otherwise red screen. Director Stuart Rosenberg begins his fable with a close-up of a parking meter, the head of which Lucas Jackson [Paul Newman] is cutting off with a large pipe-cutter. The protagonist swills beer and decapitates parking meters late one night or early one morning. He pauses between long lines of coin-operated sentinels to drain one bottle, then employs the church-key on the chain around his neck to flip another lid. When a patrol-car pulls slowly up and an officer asks, ‘‘What're you doin' there, fella?’’ Luke flashes an expansive smile, a motif throughout the film. We should note Luke's ‘‘full piano’’ of a grin whenever it appears, for it signals exuberance, mockery, or demystification as Luke's techniques for coping with imprisonment on the chain-gang and elsewhere.
When Luke is sentenced to a prison road-gang for two years for destruction of municipal property while under the influence, his prank seems too paltry for punishment. This start encourages film-watchers to search their stereotypes. Is the judicial system of drawing first blood by incarcerating a drunken rebel? Is this still another parody of Southern justice? Has a debtor been sent to prison, in effect, because he cannot otherwise repay society for the beheaded meters?
However, there may be more than existential exertion going on. Luke explains his crime to an inmate as ‘‘settling up old scores.’’ In settling his scores, Luke mocked a world inhospitable to such license and by his mockery induced that world to overreact, a second motif that we should note when it reappears. Mocking pseudo-influence is a central theme of this film, in my account.
Luke's response to restraint is so trifling that we see his hyper-sensitivity as a flaw too ordinary to be tragic: rebelling against the slightest order, Luke asserts freedom in a manner that guarantees that he'll have none. This film about individualism shows us so much about Luke to admire but shows as well adolescent self-destruction. Luke's civil disobedience recalls Holden Caulfield's opposition to phonies and exertion of authenticity: heroic and honest but foolish and crazy as well. No wonder critics rebelled against what they took to be a trendy cartoon.
Why Luke does what he does is part of his and our ‘‘failure to communicate,’’ a third motif in the movie. Luke will fail to communicate with The Captain, with bosses, with inmates even, but not with many in the audience. Many movie-goers understood Luke, his message, and his situation. Perhaps most identified with Luke against merciless prison-officials. If so, then Luke was smiling from the screen, mocking rules and authorities in a manner that many in the audience likely fathomed beyond the shallow appreciation of some.
Deposing Petty Authority by Exposing Power
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Luke first takes on a prison authority as ‘‘street-level’’ as the officer who stopped his slaughter of innocent parking-meters, Dragline [George Kennedy]. Before Luke's advent, Dragline had named inmates to match their personas. He had mediated disputes and kept the peace. He had conducted conspiracies to exploit the modest leeways permitted the prisoners. From the start of the film, Dragline distinguishes between free men [those who make rules] and prisoners [those who submit to such power]. Inured to enslavement, Dragline has tried to use the little freedom his masters have left him. Until Luke appears, Dragline had prospered as a collaborator. Actual authorities allow Dragline and his syndicate to manage matters that do not concern prison officials; in return, Dragline helps legitimize inmates' conditions. The movie does not explore this exchange as, for example, The Shawshank Redemption did.
On his first night, Luke exposes Dragline as a boss wannabe:
. . . All you Newmeats gonna have to shape up fast and hard on this gang. We got rules here an', in order to learn them, you gotta do more work with your ears than your mouth.
[Luke snorts in derision and smiles.]
Somebody say somethin'?
I didn't say nothin' [brief pause] Boss.
Dragline resents Luke's deft, quick demystification as any petty tyrant would but this time lets Luke say a mouthful by saying ‘‘nothin'.’’ He threatens Luke after the next incident. When a new man [Ralph Waite playing ‘‘Alibi’’] is duped into buying a non-existent job and spends a night in a box the size of an outhouse, Dragline defends the bosses' decision: ‘‘ . . . he back-sassed a free man. They got their rules and we ain't got nothin' to do with that. . . . ’’ Luke quickly exposes Dragline's rationalization: ‘‘Yeah, them poor ol' Bosses need all the help they can get.’’
Dragline tries to use superior force to gain Luke's acquiescence. That is, Dragline responds to Luke's challenges to his authority by threatening power. He tells Luke he has a big mouth and that Dragline may have to settle the matter in a fist-fight. When Dragline exacerbates tensions excited by a girl washing her car, Luke exposes him as a sadist. Luke has challenged Dragline's authority directly. This occasions the fist fight, power. The Captain and bosses allow a pecking order among convicts to be maintained by the same means that legal authorities ultimately use, terror and violence.
The Importance of Being Impotent
The car-washing may seem like an entertaining and exploitative interlude, but I urge you to take it more seriously than critics have. Dragline glorifies ‘‘Lucille,’’ the girl washing the car. [Dragline names even the girl!] He uses the impotence of the men, their inability to act on their most basic desires, as a weapon against them to maintain his position as collaborator-in-chief. Unable to lead free humans, Dragline settles for being the man most at home with his own enslavement. Dragline's use of impotence [just one nothing in the film] clashes with Luke's preference for making something out of nothing. This collision of philosophies leads to a most revealing physical confrontation.
When Dragline batters Luke, the inmates cannot take such overt violence from one of their own. They accept explicit and implicit violence from bosses and The Captain. They cannot abide the violence of Dragline, perhaps because they see that it does not confer even authority, not to mention influence. Dragline's sadism is overthrown because he cannot translate it to anything more attractive than power. As Luke nears serious injury while butting Dragline's fist, inmates begin to avert their eyes and walk away in disgust. As The Captain rises from his rocking chair to stop Dragline from pounding Luke into the hospital, Dragline tries to carry his outmatched opponent into the bunkhouse. Luke will not permit even that small act of contrition. When Dragline capitulates by trudging away alone, Luke staggers about. Luke is still standing, albeit staggering about as he was while deadheading the meters. Dragline has not threatened the bosses' and The Captain's monopoly on life-endangering violence. Luke has seized leadership of the bull-gang because Dragline did not back up his power-talk.
Luke precipitates a revolution among inmates by proving that Dragline cannot effectively coerce because he lacks the ultimate sanction. When a prone and woozy Luke sees the chains on a fellow prisoner's legs during the fight, he cannot stay down. Inmates see his character and admire his strength. ‘‘You're gonna have to kill me,’’ Luke says. Dragline cannot. The bosses and the Captain, we see later, can. Dragline lacks ultimate power and, having lost authority by having to resort to power to fend off Luke's challenge, Dragline accedes to Luke's superior authority and influence. Not a bloodless revolution, but note that the deviant, the criminal, accepts the coup without killing Luke, but the forces of official order ultimately cannot.
Throughout the first hour of the film, Luke eludes Dragline's power and achieves influence through his ability to endure Dragline's hard fists, the hard road, and hard gambling. Luke teaches his fellows that, if a man can take the punishments that power threatens and can forego the rewards power promises, then ‘‘sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.’’ Luke unmasks Dragline's brutality with nothing but heart. He demonstrates he can work as hard and as long as veterans on nothing but will. He bluffs Koko out of a big pot with a ‘‘handful of nothin'’’ and a truckload of nerve.
‘‘Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand’’ sounds like existential posing or a Kristofferson lyric, but not if we listen and watch. Luke has more than nothing. He is a convict with charisma, fortitude, and principle. Possessed of so few material resources that his brother exhausts his obligations by dumping Luke's banjo at the prison, Luke has character. On that character Luke soars above his peers then plummets to his death. His thorough-going individuality is his flaw: perhaps mock-heroic, sometimes puerile, always romantic, and eventually fatal.
Successful Communication: Example as Influence
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
Cut loose from family after a visit from his dying mother and indifferent brother, Luke passes his time as leader of a new family. He takes over the syndicate. He teaches his fellows to prosper through virtually innocuous disobedience. This, however, is an alpha male whom no one need follow. If an inmate finds Luke's pastime to be in the inmate's interest, he may follow.
Luke shows internees that they can defy the bosses with impunity, not by shirking but by smirking. Please recall the smile motif. Luke shows others that, by working harder and faster, they can wield their hard labor to express individuality and control. Luke thereby transforms an allegedly rehabilitative relationship. The state sentenced him to hard labor. He will make of that labor an ode to exertion, if not to growth. Dragline had used inmates' resignation in their own slavery to seize power and authority for himself. Luke uses influence instead. He shows his followers why his way confirms their dignity as human beings and confers some control over their lives.
In a key sequence in the movie, the bull-gang completes tarring so fast that the bosses have nothing for them to do. Luke thereby shows how to overcome authority and power safely. ‘‘Get the man!’’ Luke urges them, and they gain a sense of their own strength. In Dragline's phrase, the bosses do not know whether ‘‘to smile, spit, or swallow.’’ They summon no authority-talk nor any power-talk to answer the bull-gang's assault on the Hard Road. Done early, the inmates ask ‘‘What do we do now?’’ and Luke smiles broadly, sits on his shovel, and suggests that inmates do ‘‘Nothin'.’’ Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand. He who early on told Dragline and Carr the Floorwalker that he had nothing to say seems to be saying something.
An egg-eating spectacle provides another means by which Luke finds ‘‘something to do,’’ his explanation for cutting the heads off the parking meters and for his medal-winning exploits in Korea. Luke proposes to eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour. He occupies the attention of the camp and, with success, wins the admiration even of those who lost money. Every cent in camp rides on it, making it as important as anything belonging to the convicts could be. At the end of the egg-eating, the convicts have been captivated and Luke is left smiling in a crucifixion pose. He smiles when an incredulous inmate insists that no one can eat fifty eggs. By doing what others say cannot be done, Luke escapes the usual oppression of rules about what may not be done. Such escapes are limited. They are not, however, meaningless or trivial to those who despair of more enduring or expansive escapes.
Luke continues to exercise his individuality and courage, even when it draws him into conflict with authorities much higher and more dangerous than Dragline. From the first, Luke recognizes Boss Godfrey [Morgan Woodward playing the head boss, whom inmates call ‘‘The Man With No Eyes’’ because he wears mirrored sunglasses]. When one of the new meats asks whether Boss Godfrey ever speaks, The Man With No Eyes displays his eye with a rifle by shooting an ascending game bird, leading Luke to observe, ‘‘I believe he just said something.’’ Luke later picks up a snake and The Man With No Eyes shoots its head off. Luke prefigures his martyrdom by saying to his eventual executioner, ‘‘You shore can shoot, man.’’
This bravado segues to a rainstorm in which Luke adolescently sasses God, ‘‘the Big, Bearded Boss.’’ ‘‘Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it!’’ he asks. A puny prisoner commands the ultimate Authority to reveal even killing power to ease and to end his confinement. This predicament, too, Housman anticipated:
And how am I to face the odds
Of man's bedevilment and God's?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
I am unsure whether we are supposed to see the report of the death of Luke's mother in the next scene as God's answer, but that seems to be how Luke takes it when he strums his banjo and sheds a tear while singing this hymn:
I don't care if it rains or freezes
Long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sittin' on the dashboard of my car
Comes in colors pink and pleasant
Glows in the dark cuz it's iridescent
Take it with you when you travel far
Get yourself a sweet Madonna
Dressed in rhinestones
Sitting on a
Pedestal of abalone shell
Goin' ninety I ain't scary
Cuz I got the Virgin Mary
Assuring me that I won't go to Hell
Thus, Luke makes it clear that he will take on authorities and even Authority. Still, romantic as it is, his petty disturbance of the peace can neither be sustained by Luke nor tolerated by the system. The Captain cannot hear, the head boss speaks only through the reports of his rifle, and God appears to attend more to Luke's blasphemies than to Luke's complaints. What we have here is failure to communicate! Luke will be worn down by his inability to reach his betters and worn out by his inability to communicate with his peers.
Luke Exposes Pseudo-Influence
Please yourselves, say I, and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbor to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
The Captain holds Luke off the road and in ‘‘the box’’ until Luke's mother is buried. This outrages Luke. After all, the Captain could have delayed notifying Luke until Luke's mother was buried or could have told Luke that she was buried when she wasn't. The Captain claims that he sends Luke to an upright coffin for Luke's own good: ‘‘When a man's mother dies and he gits to thinkin' about her funeral and payin' respects, before he knows it his mind ain't right and he's got rabbit in his blood and runs.’’ Luke questions The Captain's counterfeit concern and challenges this pseudo-influence: power or authority disguised as influence. He shows that what the Captain claims to be for the inmates' own good is in fact in the Captain's and the bosses' interest.
From the death of Luke's mother and his isolation in the box until the end of the film, Luke's disobedience becomes less mannerly demystification as his escapes become less fanciful. Luke's smile grows more sardonic and his mockery less guarded as he conveys to prison officials that they won't get his mind right. Luke backed down the bunkhouse bully by proclaiming, ‘‘You're gonna have to kill me.’’ Now he will extend to the bosses and The Captain the same admonition, although he will fail to persuade them until he mocks The Captain's lament about failure to communicate. The very strategy Luke employed to bring Dragline down he now turns on the prison hierarchy and, eventually, God. Upset at his ill treatment, Luke coaxes power to expose itself [the second motif, please recall]. Having directed the other convicts to exploit captivity within bounds, Luke now charts his own path out of bounds.
Luke's small struggles, in fact, had made confinement more comfortable for inmates, including himself. Once provoked, Luke no longer shows inmates freedom amid captivity. Instead, he strives to escape enslavement because his nothin' seems to have become an uncool hand. He no longer exercises influence. His escapes do not redound to the benefit of his fellows. Indeed, his fans come to hate Luke for his dramatization of their desperation. He abdicates influence to pursue his individual interests. He has reached an end of what he can teach the others anyway. Where Luke is headed, the prisoners cannot or will not go.
Luke becomes a demystifying demon. When kindly Boss Kean [John McLiam] apologizes for putting Luke in the box to keep Luke from escaping to attend his mother's funeral, Luke mugs him, ‘‘Callin' it a job don't make it right, Boss.’’ Luke does not acknowledge that Boss Kean promises to say a prayer for Luke's mother, an act that might expiate Luke's banjo-hymn.
The Captain attempts to make of Luke's rebellion an irrational, self-defeating act so that the other inmates will see repression as for their own good. Remember that that was how Dragline explained Alibi's having to spend a night in the box in the early part of the film. The Captain offers the single most memorable line of the film: ‘‘What we've got here is failure to communicate.’’
The irony of such a phrasing, of course, is that Luke cannot impart his view to the Captain and it is Luke's view that the inmates share. The one-way communication in the camp is the language of power masquerading as influence. Luke must oppose it or give up his vaunted individuality. The Captain cannot hear Luke; Luke will not hear the Captain. This breakdown in communication, the third motif, abets escape and retribution.
LUKE'S ESCAPES AND REVERSALS
Luke escapes three times in the final fifty minutes of the movie. These escapes mark Luke's inflection from passive to active rebellion. Each escape is less playful and more consequential for Luke, his tormentors, and his admirers. I shall highlight how each escape leads to a reversal of one or more of Luke's achievements at the prison.
The reversals offer us the interesting hypothesis that ‘‘nothing’’ may be used to unmask power disguised as influence but anything more than nothing will provoke reprisals. When the powerful stay out of the game, sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand. When the powerful choose to play, sometimes everything is a losing hand.
Escape and Reversal One
Immediately after emerging from the box after his mother was in the ground, Luke makes his least cunning breakout. During an Independence Day celebration in the barracks, inmates dance loudly. Bosses and trustees cannot hear Luke sawing through the floor. Dragline invites Carr, the trustee who most directly supervises the barracks, to read a salacious passage, which diverts Carr from Luke's flight.
That flight is remarkable for Luke's trademark smile and his frolicsome maneuvers. Luke smiles in shot after shot. This may suggest his joy at even a moment's liberation. It may reprise his exuberant and tireless roadwork. However, I interpret the shots in conjunction with Luke's leaping from side to side along the same fenceline. Luke is playing a more serious game with the trustees and bosses, but he is still mocking officials and their power.
As recounted above, when Luke is recaptured after his first escape, his sarcasm incites The Captain to strike him. Unlike his climb to power by pulling himself up each time Dragline knocked him down, Luke does not stand back up and say to The Captain what he said to Dragline, ‘‘You're gonna have to kill me.’’ Indeed, for the first time in the movie, the lowliest authority, ‘‘Dog Boy’’ [Anthony Zerbe], verbally assaults Luke [although film-makers allow Luke to back-talk Dog Boy because Luke is not thoroughly degraded after escape one]. Official toleration of Luke's sardonic mockery has ended. Luke now wears leg-irons and the imprint of The Captain's club. Luke's reversals have begun.
Escape Two and Reversals All Around
The first time Luke escaped, he enjoyed the complicity of Dragline and others. The second escape showcases Luke's individual cunning. Luke uses more of his ‘‘nothin',’’ a length of string that he begins to accumulate at lunch of the very day that he is returned from his first escape. As Boss Kean testifies to Luke of Kean's religious faith [capped by a high standard: in twenty-two years on the Hard Road, Kean has never killed a white man], Luke interrupts him to ask to heed the call of nature. Luke then uses the string to keep shaking a bush to indicate his presence after he has begun to flee again.
In this second escape, Luke combines clever tactics and cute touches, as with his first escape. He dupes two boys into aiding his escape. He spreads chili powder and pepper across his scent. Luke smiles at the boys and says, ‘‘You remember how them dogs do when they get here so you can tell me about it some day.’’
The inmates derived great pleasure from Luke's wily escape and even more from Luke's next amusement. Luke sent them a photograph with showgirls at Luke's sides. The mere illusion that one of them could be living the high life sustains some inmates.
After he is captured the second time and returned, Luke tells the convicts about his impotence against power and authority in the outside world: ‘‘Nothin. I had nothin, made nothin. Couple towns, couple bosses. Laughed out loud one day and got turned in.’’ Ironically, bosses had tolerated Luke's mockery far more in the prison than economic bosses would do in ‘‘the Free World.’’ Luke's grinning and funning was tricky on the chain-gang but, apparently, even more challenging in the everyday world of work.
Now, prison potentates must beat Luke or lose. They break him to stop his escape and to stifle his example. To effect this reversal, The Captain again wields Orwell more than Camus: Luke must get his mind right. In the prison context, as in our own lives, a right mind is often a conformist, docile mind. Luke is reduced to being water boy and gofer for The Man With No Eyes. Luke must be degraded, not so much for his own sake [after all, they could always just kill him] as to instill in inmates the assurance that rebellion is foolish. The Captain and his henchmen try to reform Luke to cow the bull-gang. If Luke capitulates, he will become a tool of their propaganda, as Dragline had been at film's start.
After the second escape, we may spot reversals aside from this most obvious. The bosses severely beat Luke before they return him to the barracks. This plot-development not only reveals the forces of order to be more brutal than the scofflaws, but also allows The Captain to absent himself from the sadism. The bosses confine Luke to the box with minimal rations. When Luke emerges from extended solitary, trustee Dog Boy's abuse becomes less verbal [at which, recall, Luke easily bested him] and more palpable. Dog Boy heaps food on the plate of the man who could once eat fifty eggs and reminds Luke that if he does not eat it all, he goes back in the box. To weather than this reversal, Luke depends on peers who finish their plates and then ostentatiously eat from Luke's plate. The camera does not tell us whether Luke feels more acutely his inability to feed himself or his inability to fend for himself.
A final reversal is most devastating. Just as Luke and Dragline believe that Luke has survived his first week back, Boss Paul and Boss Kean alternate ordering Luke to get ‘‘his dirt’’ out of Boss Kean's imaginary ditch and, once he's created Boss Kean's ditch, to get ‘‘his dirt’’ out of Boss Paul's yard. Amid this Sisyphean inversion of Luke's indefatigability, Luke charges Boss Paul but is beaten down. This time, the camera shoots from behind Boss Paul and we see Luke through the legs of Boss Paul—legs that do not have the chains that spurred Luke on in his fight with Dragline. Reversal and inversion turn to rout when Luke, caned so severely that he is barely conscious while lying in Boss Kean's ditch and his own grave, begs Boss Paul not to hit him any more. Luke calls upon God and thereby secures the interest of Boss Kean, who had prayed for Luke's mother and had suggested that Luke was being punished for his atheism.
Luke repents his sacrilegious insubordination and insists that he has his mind right. Boss Paul warns Luke that death is the wages of backsliding from the right mind into which the bosses have now baptized him. Enter The Captain. This kindly commander resurrects Luke from a barely early grave with avuncular smarm: ‘‘OK, son. Go get shaved and cleaned up and get some sleep. I reckon you need it.’’
When Luke emerges from his would-be grave, he is too weak even to make it to his bunk. He falls to the bunkhouse floor, alone and ignored by prisoners who once venerated him. ‘‘Where are you now?’’ Luke asks fellow slaves when they look away from his re-enslavement. He showed them what they could be, but once broken, he exhibited their weaknesses. They could accept that once, under Dragline's regime. Having tasted a more exalted existence, however, they cannot abide the reminder of the Captain's and bosses' power. They reject Luke, perhaps because they do not want to believe that his subjugation is their fate. The Captain and the bosses have, at least temporarily, reversed Luke's renown.
Escape Three and the Final Reversal
Luke masterminds his final escape alone but, alas, Dragline impulsively hitches a ride on the truck that Luke is stealing. That is, Luke not only must flee on his own [as he did the second time] but must now bear as well Dragline's formidable bulk. Having been reduced to a waterboy and having endured scorn from peers who now regard him as beneath them, Luke makes out of ‘‘nothin'’’ a climactic cool hand. Luke's foreshadowed murder reverses Luke's fall. Luke completes the film as legend and martyr.
LUKE'S REVERSALS AND LUKE'S INDIVIDUALISM
Luke's reversals are telling. They consummate this fabulous study of power, authority, influence, and pseudo-influence. Critics who scored Cool Hand Luke as a shallow tear-jerker might accept my analysis of Luke's relations with officials, peers, and rules and maintain nonetheless that this fable was facile. After all, who—aside from some snotty academic—gets to mock authority and unmask power with impunity? Who—other than a poet—gets to choreograph martyrdom so neatly and completely?
What critics may have overlooked, in addition to political dynamics in the camp, was Cool Hand Luke's dramatization of the agon of standing apart. This film displays both opportunities and perils in that lie in resistance. Luke rose to primacy by going his own way. Every step of his ‘‘path to the top’’ was dear. If this film joins dozens of American films in glorifying the lonely truth-seeker opposed and oppressed by élite few and unworthy many, at least it reiterates Housman's warning to those who would flout the laws of God and man:
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
We are all vulnerable to coercion. None of us can truly stand apart or by ourselves with impunity.
Luke's individualism begins to fail him in various ways whenever he tries to exert his will. Luke feels acutely restraints that his leadership imposes on him. He regards his followers as cannibals: ‘‘ . . . stop feedin' off me.’’ Still, even as the inmates grow disenchanted with him, they defend him. He is still hero to some even as others lose their faith in him and in themselves. His war against power and authority is their war, but they are ambivalent, just as the movie is. As Luke begins to wear out, his hope fades and his energy wanes. Only then will God and man leave Luke alone.
Going his own way, Luke has attenuated social ties that might sustain him. Proving human, Luke loses ‘‘disciples’’ and sinks beneath the weight of society—both the murderously repressive madmen in power and the pathetically oppressive subjects of authority now dog him. For Luke, anything more than nothing is a hand that he cannot play cool.
The loneliness of individualism is emphasized by Luke's conversation with his dying mother and his non-conversation with his brother. Luke must confront disappointing his mother, Arletta, who loved him better than his brother. Arletta made it clear that Luke reminded her of his father, who also wasn't much for sticking around. Luke pronounces Arletta's expectations and love a heavy burden. She says she thought he was strong enough to bear it. We know from what has already transpired in Korea, on the road, and in the fist fight that Luke is strong and resilient. However, he is strong only at tasks that require him to be strong alone. Mother, family, marriage, and ‘‘respectability’’ weigh on him too heavily for him to endure them. An irony of this movie is that Luke bears the yoke of the chain-gang but cannot sustain the burdens that we in the audience accept, usually, without a thought. Perhaps we accept pseudo-influence in the same manner?
We see this again when Luke finally breaks. Having insisted on ‘‘elbow room’’ when the convicts got too worshipful, he gets it when they see that he is human after all. Luke achieves leadership on his own and on his own terms. When he needs the compassion and help of others, he learns that he gets them only in exchange for heroics. The benefits of family, both with his blood-relatives and with his prison-clan, are for grinning Luke burdens.
When Luke breaks away the last time, he must get rid of his last disciple, Dragline, because he is tired of carrying others. He must confront that ‘‘Big, Bearded Boss’’ alone. He has tried to evade petty power and authority. He seeks to learn his place in the larger camp run by The Boss. He goes alone into the chapel, where he will meet his fate if not his God.
Hey, Old Man! You home tonight (pause)? . . . If You kin spare a minute, it's about time we had ourselves a little talk. . . . Old Man, I know I'm a pretty evil feller who killed people in the war and got drunk and chopped up municipal merchandise and like that. I admit I ain't got no call to ask for much. But even so, You ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. I mean it's beginning to look like You got it fixed so that I can't never win out. Inside or out, it's just different bosses and different rules. Where am I supposed to fit in? . . . When does it end? . . . What You got in mind for me next, Old Man? What do I do now? . . . [Luke relents, folds his hands, and drops to his knees] . . . Yeah. That's what I thought. I guess I'm just a hard case and I gotta find my way out myself. . . . [Dragline enters the back door as police cars surround the chapel] . . . Is that your answer, Old Man? You're a hard case too, ain't you?
Believing that his meager supplication to Providence had been spurned, Luke recites the sardonic catch-phrase of this movie and reels from the force of Boss Godfrey's bullet through his larynx.
Thus, this movie is ambivalent throughout about individualism. It is Luke's strength and his weakness. The film's viewers must decide on a measure of individualism knowing that true individuality is very costly. Thus does the adolescent become an adult.
A Defeatist Ending?
Ultimately The Man With No Eyes kills Luke because Luke will not ‘‘get his mind right.’’ Killing Luke elevates him to heroic status and places him beyond earthly power, influence, or authority. Luke becomes an power on his own in the retelling of Dragline. ‘‘Cool Hand Luke, hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker!’’ gushes Dragline at film's end. The picture of Luke and the showgirls, taped back together after Koko had torn it in pique at Luke's capitulation to the bosses, serves as a relic. The martyr is once again the object of admiration for the whole camp. It's a costly way to be a leader, but a formula familiar from art and actuality.
This end reveals anew the superficiality of seeing Cool Hand Luke merely as a tale about meaningless existence. Luke's efforts end in his death, but clearly the film-makers admire Luke and believe that he has made a difference.
First and least, Luke has liberated himself. Dragline tells inmates how dying Luke smiled as prison officials drove him away from the shooting. ‘‘They shoulda known then that they were ne'er gonna beat 'im!’’
Second, the car drives over the mirrored glasses of Boss Godfrey, now forced to show his entire face after Dragline has assaulted him for the murder of Luke. Luke has encouraged Dragline to escape [as Randall McMurphy did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for Chief Broom] and to unmask power rather than to legitimize it. Such is a Christ-like act that even the reverent should appreciate.
Third and most significant, as the prison car takes Luke to the prison for burial, it passes under a stoplight. With Luke's passing, the green light changes directly to red, with no intermediate yellow. The green is on top and the red on bottom! It may be a small triumph, but Luke has turned an authority on its head. He never quite settled his score with the parking meters, but his score with authority backed by power has been settled before Luke slips into death. Luke has made a difference.
And, since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.
The movie ends with a montage of Luke Jackson and his broad grin, an ending consistent with a claim that Luke could liberate himself only through death. Luke's soul could flee past Saturn and past Mercury, where he need not keep the foreign laws of God and man. What else might the smile have meant throughout the film?
The smile might instead mean that, like God and the Devil, Power and Authority are not mocked and cannot abide humor that levels them. Humor, sarcasm, irony, and satire often expose truths. Exposing truths imperils exposed and exposer, however. Exposure compels the exposed to rely on social resources that work without choice and absent credulity. The exposed will often strive to limit exposure by eliminating exposers. Luke knew the truth and the truth may have made him free. It certainly made him dead.
Thus, Luke's smiling front collided with the economy of political communication. Rules and rulers, authority and power incited Luke's demystification. Initially, Luke's grins and pranks were not overtly insubordinate to The Captain and the bosses. Once gratuitous power and sanctimonious authority tyrannized Luke, Luke chose to resist more overtly. His playful mockery of officials elicited brutish retribution. As The Captain and his underlings tried to make authority and power into influence, opportunistic communication became more difficult and honest vengeance took the place of wily persuasion. The makers of Cool Hand Luke have, following Orwell, illustrated how insincerity breaks down communications.
The film leaves the bull-gang and the audience at a crossroads. Convicts have their inspiration for their confrontations with power and authority. Members of the audience must choose as well. Some will emulate Luke. They will resist expressive and repressive crimes. They will recognize crime that comes from on high as well as crime that wells from those below. Others will cooperate and collaborate for security or advancement. Maybe they will do so less easily for having experienced Luke's joy-ride.
. For a list of movies about penitentiaries, prisons, and other penal institutions, please consult Richard B. Armstrong and Mary Willems Armstrong, THE MOVIE LIST BOOK (Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1994) pp. 301-303. For a survey of the genre, please see Bruce Crowther, CAPTURED ON FILM: THE PRISON MOVIE (North Pomfret: Trafalgar Square, 1990).
. Recent examples abound. Dead Man Walking considers acknowledgement, repentance, and justice. Murder in the First highlights perseverance and courage. Hope is the resounding moral of The Shawshank Redemption, while Malcolm X more concerns redemption.
. A Jalem Production distributed by Warner Brothers in 1967; directed by Stuart Rosenberg; produced by Gordon Carroll; written by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson from Donn Pearce, COOL HAND LUKE (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965).
. Friedrich Nietzsche, THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA (New York: The Modern Library, n.d.) (Thomas Common, translator) p. 108 [Chapter 29, ‘‘The Tarantulas’’].
. John Maynard Keynes, THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT INTEREST AND MONEY (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936) p. 383.
. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Sympathy for the Devil on the Rolling Stones' CD BEGGARS BANQUET (New York: ABKCO Records, 1986).
. From Stanley Kauffmann, FIGURES OF LIGHT: FILM CRITICISM AND COMMENT (New York: Harper and Row, 1971) p. 28:
His escapes are self-willed escapades, not acts of heroism. And he gets himself killed out of stubborn cussedness, not for any cause or any practical reason. Thus the popular film arrives in the age of anti-idealism and of the acte gratuit. Camus's Absurdity on the quarter shell.
. Pauline Kael, GOING STEADY (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970) pp. 35, 60.
. Frank N. Magill (editor), MAGILL'S SURVEY OF CINEMA (Volume One: English Language Films, First Series) (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Salem Press, 1980) pp. 384-386. On Christ-symbols, please see ‘‘Theological Criticism,’’ in Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Oswalt, Jr. (editors), SCREENING THE SACRED: RELIGION, MYTH, AND IDEOLOGY IN POPULAR AMERICAN FILM (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1995) p. 15. Compare essays at [‘‘http://falcon.jmu.edu:80/~delucagi/coolhand2.0/jesusessay.html’’ and ‘‘http://falcon.jmu.edu:80/~delucagi/coolhand2.0/jesusinfo.html’’] on the World Wide Web.
. I invoke in this sentence three well known works that raise questions similar to those that I find in Cool Hand Luke. Please see Fyodor Dostoevsky, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Constance Garnett, translator) (New York: Walter J. Black, 1942); John Gaventa, POWER AND POWERLESSNESS: QUIESCENCE AND REBELLION IN AN APPALACHIAN VALLEY (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1980); and Kenneth Burke, PERMANENCE AND CHANGE: AN ANATOMY OF PURPOSE (New York: New Republic, 1935). If Mr. Rosenberg, a director who trained on television, is incapable of critics' respect, perhaps similar investigations by a novelist, a sociologist, and a literary critic can gild Cool Hand Luke with importance by association.
. I render dialogue from the movie by reproducing the words from the screenplay in IDENTITY: PRINT VERSIONS OF THE FOLLOWING FILMS: ‘‘THAT'S ME,’’ ‘‘THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER,’’ ‘‘COOL HAND LUKE,’’ AND ‘‘UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE’’ (New York: Scholastic Book Services, 1974) pp. 79-134. This passage appears first on p. 119, col. 2. I have reproduced the key sentence in boldface.
I henceforth refer to this script as ‘‘Pearce and Pierson.’’ The reader should realize that words in the release will vary slightly from the screenplay. I alter punctuation in dialogue when I believe that it increases clarity and I replace characterizations of characters' movements to suit the release.
. Pearce and Pierson, pp. 133-134. As I warned in the previous note, I alter descriptions of actions to suit the released film. The famous phrase was capitalized in the script.
13 David V. J. Bell, POWER, INFLUENCE, AND AUTHORITY : AN ESSAY IN POLITICAL LINGUISTICS (New York : Oxford University Press, 1975).
. Sheldon S. Wolin, POLITICS AND VISION: CONTINUITY AND INNOVATION IN WESTERN POLITICAL THOUGHT (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960) pp. 220-224.
. Influence may even coax from an audience convictions of listeners' authority or even power over the speaker, as in a political campaign. Self-proclaimed public-servants ritualistically flatter voters in campaigns because voters tolerate power or authority in themselves better than in others.
. For example, Randall P. McMurphy [Jack Nicholson] in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reminds the guard who is pushing him away from the edge of the pool that they may meet up on the outside.
. Philippe Nonet and Philip Selznick, LAW AND SOCIETY IN TRANSITION: TOWARD RESPONSIVE LAW (New York: Harper & Row, 1978).
. Of course, expectations for formal rules require more than mere predictability. Please see Professor Lon L. Fuller's ‘‘desiderata’’ in THE MORALITY OF LAW (Revised Edition) (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969) pp. 33-91.
. Please consider prisoners' introductions to their penal homes in The Shawshank Redemption, An Innocent Man, and Papillon. Cinematic boot-camps are comparable settings for candid expressions of power and authority.
. Please consider the testimony uttered by F. Murray Abraham in AN INNOCENT MAN: ‘‘It's simple in here. It's an insane place with insane rules, so it ends up bein' logical.’’
. Indeed, if inmates return the favor by pointing out self-interest that the guards or wardens may have missed, mutual influence or exchange may result. I do not consider exchange-relations in this paper. Regarding exchange in prison, please screen The Shawshank Redemption, The Longest Yard, Victory, or Good Fellas.
. THE COLLECTED POEMS OF A. E. HOUSMAN (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965) p. 111.
. Of course, the viewer must cede some artistic license here. Unless the parking meter ranged to five or six hours, how could the time on the meters be running out just as Lucas Jackson is cutting off the heads?
. I quote here from the release because this scene was not in the script.
. This is a device in, for example, the first movie to feature Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo: First Blood.
. A famous ‘‘take’’ on Southern justice is In the Heat of the Night, but James Baldwin effectively shows the degree to which that film sanitizes relations in the South in THE DEVIL FINDS WORK: AN ESSAY (New York: Dell, 1976) pp. 61-69. Caricatures are equally safe but more abundant in My Cousin Vinnie. The parody in Cool Hand Luke may be quite near the mark—Bob Herbert, Brutality Behind Bars, THE NEW YORK TIMES [National edition] (July 7, 1997) p. A17, cols. 1-2.
. Minimizing the venality of an imprisoned protagonist is, of course, a familiar tactic in film-making. Please compare Murder in the First, The Shawshank Redemption, The Longest Yard, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 90, col. 1.
. In the script, Luke identified the first meter slain on screen with a general who awarded him a medal and a second with Helen, a woman over whom Luke lost his head. Please see Pearce and Pierson, p. 82, col. 1. These details did not make it into the released film.
. Luke resembles the protagonist in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little, Brown, 1951): a man-boy who won't back down. Like a teenager, Luke strikes back at restraints that are in his communal if not individual interests. This rebel has a cause but one that he cannot convey to ordinary adults, who may never have perceived mundane concessions as defeats or, if once they did, no longer recall the exuberance of self-exertion against forces and fences that wall in the brave and the lonely everyday and everywhere. Please refer as well to Lonely Are the Brave, in which Jerri Bondi [Gena Rowlands] denigrates Jack Burns's [Kirk Douglas] resistance to restraint as childish.
. Indeed, that this film communicated reached an audience seems to be what annoyed Pauline Kael most! Please see note 35.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 87, col. 2. I have altered the dialogue from the screenplay because the words that George Kennedy actually says in the release are, in my view, more striking.
. Both quotations may be found in Pearson and Pearce, p. 94, col. 2. I substituted ‘‘Bosses’’ for guards because that is what Newman clearly says in the release.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 94, col. 2.
. The script called for more explicit and frequent references to women and sex. The novel is even more explicit.
. Pauline Kael's screed on this point shows how superficial one's glance at the screen must be to consider the car-washing scene a harmful diversion:
Stuart Rosenberg, the director of WUSA, made his movie reputation with a contemptible success, Cool Hand Luke, a film that pretended to have something to say and was full of touches designed to make the audience feel ‘‘knowing’’—such as a girl teasing a bunch of convicts by washing her car seductively, playing with the nozzle of a hose and squeezing fluid out of a sponge. That is, he transferred a commercial hack's sexual innuendo onto a young girl, just for effect. Rosenberg's ‘‘touches’’ don't grow out of his material—they're stuck on; his movies are full of signals to us, but the signals don't direct us anywhere. The road gang in Cool Hand Luke went through a lot of waste motion just to satisfy the director's desire for a rhythmically edited sequence, . . .
Pauline Kael, Deeper Into Movies (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973) p. 181.
First, let me answer Ms. Kael's ad hominem with one coming right back at her: it takes some nerve for the author of I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, and Deeper Into Movies to denounce sexual innuendo. On a more rational level, please notice that Rosenberg was seeking, according to Kael, just to make the audience feel knowing and just to create a rhythmic sequence. I pass by conventional use of ‘‘just’’ to denote ‘‘simply’’ or ‘‘solely’’— perhaps Ms. Kael just changed her mind in mid-paragraph or just tacked on another thought about just why Mr. Rosenberg deserved her vitriol.
Third, I believe that I can justify the sequence by more than its rhythm. I reject as obtuse the claim that audiences felt that they understood something that the inmates [or whomever Ms. Kael believes to be out of the know] did not. Rosenberg's rhythm derives from shooting the young woman from inside an old automobile as she washes it. As she washes the car's roof, she presses her ample bosom against the window through which the camera shoots, nearly creating a three-dimensional effect. Certainly sexual and perhaps exploitative, the sequence tends to make college students—males and females alike—squirm and laugh nervously. The sequence may create in many viewers discomfort. It may even cater to the prurient in some watchers. Absent such effects, Dragline's tormenting of inmates, inmates' ‘‘cold showers,’’ and a fistfight over ‘‘Lucille’’ would make less sense. As in many yarns, the provocation must be supreme.
. Please notice that the inmates who first assist Luke to his feet and who counsel him to stay down are the most marginal inmates. Two are new meats who came in the new-meat wagon with Luke. The third is ‘‘Society Red’’ [played by J. D. Cannon], a bad-check artist who maintains his distance [he imagines it to be superiority] from the other inmates by, among other practices, reading The New York Times. I cannot decide whether to see Society Red as a detached, unemotional observer or as an analytic, fearful rationalizer. Either way, I suspect he would do well in academic politics.
. Compare on this point The Longest Yard, in which a guard would not kill a prisoner as the warden ordered.
. I allude below to Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee: ‘‘Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.’’
. I like this choice of a musical instrument invented by Africans and introduced to the American South by African-American slaves. In the novel, Donn Pearce seems to me to use the banjo both to illustrate still another of Luke's excellences and to construct a very working-class hero.
. On this point, one might compare Icarus or Jack London, whose credo seems to explain Luke's ‘‘preference-structure:’’
I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
RESPECTFULLY QUOTED (Suzy Platt, editor) (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989) p. 213.
. A more recent example of this tactic adorned The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy Defresne [Tim Robbins] locked himself in an office and played Mozart over the prison's loudspeakers.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 105, col. 2.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 106, col. 2.
. In Luke's first moments inside the prison's barracks he had made faces [ever the adolescent?] at trustee Carr's litany of ways to ‘‘spend a night in the box.’’ Carr then asked if Luke was going to be a hard case. Luke shook his head in the negative. Perhaps Luke had not intended to be a hard case.
. The script shows that this pose is quite intentional: ‘‘We see Luke, lying half naked and unconscious with his arms spread out hanging over the table. His pose is almost Christlike. He is smiling.’’ Pearce and Pierson, p. 113, col. 2.
. In the release, Boss Godfrey appears to shoot a pheasant on the rise—a sporting diversion. The script called for The Man With No Eyes to shoot a crow.
Please note that The Man With No Eyes later shoots a snapping turtle lazing in a slough. When Boss Paul orders Luke, once a snapper but now a gofer, to retrieve and to clean the dead reptile, Luke escapes for the third and final time. In another anticipation of his demise, Luke holds the turtle aloft by a long pole and grins as he shouts, ‘‘Here he is, Boss. Deader'n hell but he won't let go.’’ Pearce and Pierson, p. 131, col. 1.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 92, col. 2.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 114, col. 1.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 114, col. 2.
. I have quoted the release. The script called for Luke to shout, ‘‘Come on! Make me know You're up there! Kill me or love me, one or the other.’’ Pearce and Pierson, p. 115, col. 2.
. I have quoted this lyric from the release. The words are not in the script. The film-makers appropriated a profane hymn for the banjo scene. They might have done worse, to judge from the variety of doggerel listed under ‘‘Sounds’’ at ‘‘http://falcon.jmu.edu:80/~delucagi/coolhand2.0/sounds/plasticjesus.html,’’ the ‘‘Cool Hand Luke Homepage.’’
. Recall from note 44 that Carr the Floorwalker had listed myriad ways to ‘‘spend a night in the box’’ and then asked Luke if Luke would be a hard case. Luke may not have anticipated that he would be a hard case, but his nights in the box changed his mind. The box, designed as a sanction to get prisoners' minds right, becomes a spur to set Luke's mind wrong. This is first among a series of reversals in the latter half of the movie.
. Ms. Mercedes C. Garrido suggested that I compare the boxes in which Luke and his mother were placed. I thank her.
. Pearce and Pierson, pp. 116-117.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 117, col. 1.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 119, col. 2.
. Perhaps Luke said it to Dragline because Dragline could hear Luke and would act on what we might define as power-talk: ‘‘If you insist on hitting me, I shall punish you by making you beat me to death.’’ The end of the film makes it evident why such a message would not deter The Captain or The Man With No Eyes.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 121, col. 1.
. Pearce and Pierson, p. 122, col. 2.