Welcome to the chain gang, Luke,
Where slightest back talk earns rebuke.
Forget your crime was just a fluke.
You’re here to pay your debt.
You’ll learn the rules at any rate,
For you will quickly learn your fate
If “failure to communicate”
Remains a running threat.
Most of the films I’ve seen were released since the 1970s, and while I love classics like Gone with the Wind and Miracle on 34th Street, there are still quite a few “classic” films that I have yet to see. One of these movies that critics and the AFI love to laud is Cool Hand Luke, a film that, before now, was only a name and a famous quote to me. Now I have my own opinion.
Seeing this star-making role for Paul Newman was fascinating in many ways, particularly in how this chain gang tale influenced other prison films like The Shawshank Redemption (betting on new arrivals, escape attempts), Holes (prison buddy nicknames, escape attempts), and even Toy Story 3 (the famous box speech). A scene involving paving a road brought to mind Bessie from Cars and made me wonder if that’s why Pixar cast Paul Newman in that film. The story of Luke Jackson’s imprisonment is a worth-while one, featuring all the Oscar-worthy acting and tenacious style that attracts critical praise and a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Newman, in particular, has some moments of phenomenal acting, and I thought he deserved an Oscar more than George Kennedy (who won Best Supporting Actor) as his rival-turned-friend Dragline. The work camp includes quite a few recognizable faces as well, including Strother Martin (the horse dealer in True Grit), Ralph Waite (Pa from The Waltons), Wayne Rogers (TV’s M*A*S*H), Harry Dean Stanton (the first victim in Alien), and Dennis Hopper (Speed, Hoosiers). It’s a well-made film, but as with One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, I take issue with the way its message is conveyed.
Basically, what Cool Hand Luke reminds me of is a less uplifting version of The Shawshank Redemption, but fused with the anti-establishment theme of Cuckoo’s Nest. Luke himself is an anti-hero who’s tamer than R. P. McMurphy but still problematic. Instead of being rebellious for the sake of fun or feeling free, he’s ultimately rather shallow and just seems to be masochistic and stupid. A drunken mistake lands him in prison, and a boxing match with later friend Dragline proves Luke’s capacity for his own suffering, with no clear motivation. Later on, that suffering is far less willing, but Luke still brings it on himself. Who but an idiot would try to escape with less than a year of his sentence to go, knowing it would add on more? And it isn’t as if Luke’s time there was insufferable. Everyone could still smoke and drink and gamble (unrealistic for jail time), and aside from an early power play, the guards aren’t too cruel until Luke gives them reason to be. Thus, the impetus for Luke’s rebellion just doesn’t make sense.
On top of that, there are several instances of religious symbolism drawing a comparison between Luke and Jesus, though their only similarity is that both their punishments were overly severe. I like, even admire, character parallels to Christ, but when they include no sign of sacrifice, they fall flat, as in this case. To his fellow inmates, he becomes a hero, but only because he’s willing to do things they don’t have the backbone for or, better put, things they have the common sense not to do. He talks to God but not with any reverence, more like Robert Green Ingersoll challenging the “old man” to prove He’s there. The Christian comparison is sometimes rather explicit, but serves no purpose due to Luke being nothing like Jesus: Luke doesn’t help his fellow prisoners in any way (aside from winning Dragline a bet), he isn’t innocent, and his mother (Jo Van Fleet) ain’t no Virgin Mary. Therefore, why make the comparison?
Again, I must point to Shawshank as the shining example of how to do this anti-establishment freedom theme right. It’s always best when the good guy is innocent and the bad guy is undoubtedly evil. (POW films usually succeed too, since the roles of good and bad typically conform to who won or lost the war.) I realize not every film can have this setup, but those that don’t just don’t work, at least for me. As I said, this is a good film, one worth watching and preserving, but other films have built on its themes far more persuasively. Critics can praise the character of Luke, but when an iconic role is dominated by nothing more than a “because I can” attitude, I’m unsure why its faults aren’t more recognized.
Best line: (both the Captain and Luke) “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
Rank: Honorable Mention
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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