Friday, October 10, 2008
Cool Hand Luke (1967) *****
People talk about the ‘60s and ‘70s as a time of great anti-establishment movies, citing films like “Easy Rider” and “M.A.S.H.” Other folks reach back a decade or two to tout “Rebel Without a Cause.” Those are great movies, but for my money, the greatest film statement against authority, hands down, is “Cool Hand Luke.”
“I ain’t heard much worth listening to. Just a bunch of fellows spouting a bunch of rules and regulations.” Of all the great lines from “Cool Hand Luke,” and this movie is choc-full of them, this line best sums up this story about the struggle of man’s free spirit against stifling authority. Luke utters these words in prison, but the bosses he deals with on the chain gang are really no different than the bosses in the army, in countless jobs, or that he has faced just walking down the street. Luke’s fate in this world is sealed because he can’t resign himself to taking orders from petty men who relish having a little power over other men.
Paul Newman, in one of his greatest roles, plays Lucas Jackson, a poor, fatherless, southern boy tossed into a prison work gang for two years for the heinous crime of getting drunk and cutting the heads off parking meters. One imagines that Luke must have had some prior convictions to get such a stiff sentence, or maybe he just wasn’t remorseful enough in front of the judge. It is quickly apparent that Luke isn’t much of one for bowing and scraping in front of his so-called superiors. Luke fits in well enough at first. He says “yes, boss” and “Captain” like he’s told, keeps his head down, and does his work. That isn’t enough for the “bosses”, though, who aren’t satisfied with obedience, but also require FEALTY. He first runs afoul of the massive Dragline, a boss of sorts among the prisoners. Dragline thinks that his superior size translates to superior intelligence. He constantly subjects his fellow prisoners to his pontifications, and he doesn’t take kindly to being contradicted. Dragline challenges Luke to a fight to put him in his place, but Luke wins the fight, and alpha-male status, simply by refusing to stay down when he is clearly beaten. The scene defines Luke’s approach to life. He doesn’t have anything to fight with, but he keeps standing back up, refusing to surrender. It’s as if he has embraced having nothing to lose as the source of his strength. As he puts it after bluffing his way through a hand of poker, “Sometimes nothing is a cool hand to have.”
As Luke’s undefeated attitude and zest for life infect the whole prison, he and the boys have some great times. Things turn serious, however, when the warden unfairly punishes Luke and blatantly ignores his humanity. Luke, who had previously seemed inclined to serve out his time peacefully, embarks on a series of escapes, culminating in a confrontation with God himself. Luke begs God to “Love me, hate me, kill me, just show me something!” and his final, good-humored accusation of The Almighty, “I guess you’re a hard case, too,” is pure Luke. One imagines that if the Christian God is real and is the petty punisher that His followers make Him out to be, then Luke is down in Hell, standing up to Satan, getting up every time he is knocked down.
5 stars out of 5