Review: Cool Hand Luke
There have been some brilliant prison dramas in film history, the best probably being The Shawshank Redemption (1994), but there are many other notable ones I have yet to see. Mrs B recommended Stuart Rosenborg’s 1967 film Cool Hand Luke and having read the synopsis I was intrigued both by the film and how it would stand up today.
The film begins with Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) arrested after being found drunk on the streets and cutting the heads off parking meters. Luke is sentenced to time at a rural prison camp where the inmates are watched over by the ruthless Captain (Strother Martin) who incidentally has the film’s most famous line. Luke is initially scorned by Dragline (George Kennedy), the leader of the prison inmates, but over time Luke’s refusal to conform to the prison system and his daring escape attempts make him something of a folk hero amongst his peers but does he escape for good in the end or is Luke eventually broken by prison?
After his early arrest Luke is quickly taken to prison along with a group of other newcomers and in an amusing opening we hear the list of rules the inmates have to abide by. For every rule we learn that transgressors “spend a night in the box,” a harsh solitary confinement with a pot and tin for toiletry requirements being a prisoner’s only company. Luke is revealed to be a war hero, which initially sees him mocked by the other prisoners especially after his first day away from the prison working on the roads. Gradually, Luke begins to win over the other prisoners with his good humour and defiance of the prison authority. His biggest challenge is winning the respect of Dragline who challenges him to a fight one Saturday – this is the designated day of the week when prisoners who have grudges and arguments to settle can do so with their fists and the guards won’t intervene unless it gets serious. Dragline is superior in strength to Luke and proceeds to give him a fierce beating but every time Luke is knocked down he simply stands again to have another beating. Dragline reaches the point where he walks away with a bloodied Luke still on his feet having now gained admiration from the other prisoners.
The searing heat is emphasised greatly at the prison where the men are sweating in their bunks or dripping with moisture working on the roads, where they have to ask permission to remove their shirts. Prison life is depicted brutally here and the lives the men are missing not being free are conveyed brilliantly when a young woman emerges from her house in a short dress and proceeds to wash her car, soap hitting her as much as the car, while the deprived prisoners look on with admiration and longing. While the prisoners are settled into a routine they are given excitement with the masterstrokes of Luke. He gets his name Cool Hand Luke by winning a poker game with a poor hand and even wins the challenge of eating 50 boiled eggs in an hour – it’s agonising watching him go through this challenge. Even more memorable is when the men are working on the road, following a truck spilling tar onto the surface which has to be covered with dirt. What should be a job that lasts all day is completed with a couple of hours to spare thanks to Luke urging the prisoners on. As a result the men are free to do nothing in the sunshine for at least two hours, a taste of heaven for them all. Luke, however, is not content with prison life and after a visit from his dying mother, whose funeral he isn’t allowed to attend, Luke makes some escape attempts, always being brought back. In an unforgettable scene he is chained before the other prisoners and the Captain utters those immortal words, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Cool Hand Luke becomes more painful after Luke makes his second escape attempt and is put through severe punishments by the prison guards. Asked to dig a hole in the yard, Luke completes the work only to be asked what all the dirt is doing in the yard. After Luke fills in the hole he is then told to dig again! Eventually Luke collapses and pleads for mercy. His fellow inmates had been watching in admiration up until this point but once he shows weakness they turn their backs on him. After being taken back to join the other prisoners not one will help an exhausted Luke into his bunk and he can only collapse on the floor. It seems Luke has been broken by the prison guards at last but there is still a stubborn fire burning deep within him. The ending is memorable and tragic but rounds off a fantastic film that has a terrific starring performance from Paul Newman with George Kennedy a worthy co-star as the jovial and tough Dragline. The film is a reminder of how in some respects justice was correct in having prisoners work during their sentences and give something back to society but the brutalisation many go through is too much. Such harsh treatment is what has left our prisons in a sorry state today where many criminals enjoy luxuries and are not really reformed. Cool Hand Luke depicts prison life where criminals would be desperate not to go back, a far cry from what we have today.
Cool Hand Luke is a terrific prison drama with Newman exceptional in the lead. Luke is undoubtedly a criminal but you’ll still find yourself behind him as he continually defies the prison guards. Despite some moments that are difficult to watch this film is still a must-see.
(Film source: reviewer’s own copy)