I remember watching this on the telly many, many years ago as a boy, probably in the mid seventies. I remember it was ambivalently “hailed” as a realistic and sort of existentialist movie, about “non conformity” but not dealing with the morality of the prison system as such, which a actual mature person may focus on. On the surface level it seems like a straight forward prison story, but the script is based on a book who’s author actually experienced it.
It is a mix of personal experience of the author/scriptwriter and an actual real person he was locked up with called Cool Hand Luke. I feel that the writer wants to tell some deeper stories, though these are not fleshed out quite as clear as the obvious rebel stereotype it explicitly presents.
Luke is arrested for cutting the top of a line of parking meters one night while drunk. I think this is an important hint from the get go. The focus on this symbolic “beheading” of societal order or loss of a functioning head runs like a thread through the movie, with various levers that are not too obvious.
The way Luke grins, almost like a monkey, when the projector lights hits him as he is about to be arrested, seems like a nihilistic and almost surrealistic response in that situation and should warn the viewer that this should not be understood literally.
The convicts of the rural prison are used as workers in a chain gang along roads in remote and hot areas ... in the south I suppose. They are looked after by armed guards who all have a more or less sadistic attitude towards the prisoners. The work they do is all but completely mind-numbingly stupid, but they do it out of fear of the guards beating or shooting them.
This works as a metaphor for society as a whole. It is all a game of controlling other individuals by some sort of threat of force or abandonment to get people to conform so that others can get a hold og their stuff or their time. It is just so explicit in a prison environment, that most people are willfully ignorant of its universality, as it is more invisible in “normal” everyday.
Luke presents a kind of projection of the fantasy superhero, into the world, who can ignore the physical and mental pain in his inability to conform to the rules of his masters. What his moral fibre really is, stays shrouded in mystery, since he is hell bent on individualism and getting out and be alone and have only the approach to guide others.
His inmates at first treat him with the same force as their masters, they want to universalize force as a moral tool, which is another way of enforce the fallacy, that an authority on morality, must deal out death and judgment, to secure correct behaviour. This is a recurring theme in society and this is what I think the story is trying to challenge.
Luke does not illude himself about other peoples intentions. He knows exactly what is going on and is actually trying to, indirectly tell the others, how things work and the indirect parasitism to further own agenda. This is shown clearly in the scene with the overtly vulgar sex bomb washing a car, practically throwing her sexy body in the face of the mesmerized, onlooking men.
They create their own sexy story in their heads about the “reality” they think they experience, but Luke tears it down and tells everybody how the woman knows exactly what she is doing, but is just taking advantage of her attributes to further her own agenda. But the others want to live in their fantasy about “society” even if they deep down know that this is just a ridiculous show to get you to do things you might not really want go do.
Luke keeps running away and get caught. He gets more and more beat up and even if he seems like he is strong, he psychologically seem to be coming apart. But just when everyone thinks he has succumbed to society´s rules, he brushes it off and goes his own way again. His inmate, most notably Dragline, grows from an extension of the guards to become almost like a disciple of Luke.
I think this aspect is deliberate. Luke is a placeholder for a Jesus figure. It is quite obvious, not least when he enters the church in the last scenes and talks to his “father” just like Jesus supposedly did on the cross. Luke is shot in the neck and is bleeding, just like Jesus was wounded and bleeding on the cross. Luke is practically used as a willfully participating torture victim, who almost looks like he intensionally wants to be caught every time he runs away, just like Jesus. And by the way, mother Mary turns up at the crucifiction in the shape of his mother’s visit.
The only reason is that he wants to tell the others what he is doing or what is wrong, but he does not know how or others are unaware. This is condensed into the famous line from the film, when the creepy foreman strikes down Luke in the mud, after one of his "misbehavings"; "What we´ve got here ... is a failure to communicate", emphasized by Luke later.
He has to die on the cross to have any hope of people understanding what they are in. And yet they just get back to normal everyday, working for the machine, while they just deify Luke as a Jesus or superhero guy, with a legendary smile... so that they do not have to face reality. Luke did it for them and they dont have to do anything now.
I certainly never were a fan of Paul Newman. But if there ever were a part that he could do and did do decently, it was as Luke. Compared to George Kennedy’s Dragline, who won him an Oscar, Newman is very limited in his emotional range. By the way, is it just me or does Dragline try to sound like a black man? Maybe to parallel to slavery
The Luke role sort of demands a certain coolness, but still a better actor would have raised the bar in my opinion than Newman. Again, he was chosen for his hunky looks, to lure women in the theatres, and not for his acting skills.
I am very sympathetic to the idea of the story and it could have been a truly great movie. But it never really engages me like those great movies do. This is mostly due to Newmans one-dimensional acting, but also because I never get under the skin of any of the characters. They are either to little present emotionally or too stereotypically portrayed. A good comparison could be Shawshank Redemption, which much better engages me, even if it is more thriller oriented.
The cinematography is generally good to great. The outdoor scenes are well shot and really gets your sense of working the sweat of your back, come to life. The indoor scenes mostly revolve around the claustrophobic sleeping quarters or the yard outside. This is fine as it amplifies the feeling of imprisonment and ignites a feeling of wanting to get away.
This is one of those movies, to me, that has become slightly overrated over time. It does have a solid cast, good cinematography and generally fine acting performances. But as a viewer I never really feel engaged in the characters in the way that is needed, to get to the upper levels of cinema. Close but no cigar. I settle on a recommendation.