Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writers: Donn Pearce (screenplay), Frank Pierson (screenplay) (as Frank R. Pierson)
Stars: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin
Right, so I’ve been in the midst of a Game of Thrones season 7 binge this week with little to no time spent watching any films. This simply won’t do, so what’s the solution? Well, I’ll just go ahead and review one of my all-time favourites. A film that I’ve seen so many times, I can review from sheer memory alone. What is this glorious piece of cinematic art, do I hear you ask? (You probably didn’t). Cool Hand Luke is the answer. A 1967 classic from director Stuart Rosenberg (who also done another of my favourites Brubaker).
I’ll start off by saying that I’m an unashamed fanboy of the late Paul Newman. He was one of my favourites, a truly tremendous actor and, in my opinion, this is the best film he did in his entire career. I can’t really recall another film that inflicts such relentless brutality upon its main protagonist and yet remains fondly thought of by fans and film enthusiasts alike. I think much of this fondness is down to Newman’s performance and the humanity, presence and genuineness he injects into the character. There’s also a few moments of fairly light hearted, genuine fun and humour that are memorable enough to help off-set the more brutal aspects and stick in the mind for years afterwards.
The film revolves around war veteran Lucas ‘Luke’ Jackson and his time spent at a chain gang prison in Florida. He’s sentenced to two years after a night of loutish, drunken behaviour and immediately sets about making an impression, refusing to fall in line with the established prisoner hierarchy. This leads to a fight with leader Dragline (George Kennedy), in which his indomitable spirit is shown in all it’s glory. He’s outmatched and repeatedly beaten by the larger man, but refuses to stay down. An exasperated Dragline eventually walks away with new found respect and a tinge of disbelief. This and an infamous poker scene (where his nickname ‘cool hand’ is born) helps in eventually forging a close friendship between the two with the former bordering on infatuation at times in his adulation of Luke.
His boisterousness, sense of humour and impudent antics, which include leading an improbable one-day, road laying job with the other men and eating fifty hard boiled eggs in a crazy bet, are brought to the boil following a spirit lifting visit from his sickly mother and succeed in piquing the interest of the ever watchful guards and prison captain (Strother Martin). The other prisoners, thrilled by the newcomers spirit and brashness, though too petrified to actually step out of line for fear of what’s coming themselves, often live vicariously through Luke and elevate him to Christ like status before too long. He even plucks up the courage to taunt Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), the feared and permanently bespectacled (with mirrored sunglasses) walking boss.
Unfortunately, Luke’s new found contentedness at seeing out his sentence whilst merely tormenting his captors is extinguished not long afterwards when news of his mother’s death reaches him. He’s forced to miss her funeral and spend time in the punishment box. Afterwards, cruelly being told to forget about her. This sets off a relentless desire to escape and indeed he does just that on two occasions. Each time he’s captured and terribly beaten. The second time in particular, after an extended leave, when he’s forced to dig a grave size hole and fill it in again and again, followed by a brutal beating, is enormously difficult watch. For a short while, he looks a broken man, accepting orders meekly and drawing the disdain of his downhearted prison mates. Old Luke’s indomitable spirit bends but doesn’t break however and he mounts one more daring escape, fleeing in a truck with Dragline popping the brave pills to tag alone.
The ending is both fitting, poignant and sad in equal measures. Holed up and surrounded in a church (of all places), Luke prays to a God who’s never listened before and curses this very fact. He certainly doesn’t lose his sense of humour despite the horrendous situation he finds himself in, calling out the now infamous line “what we have here is a failure to communicate” with more than a hint of mockery. The phrase stolen from the prison Captain’s earlier stoic speech about Luke’s bad influence on the others and repeated escapes. Things don’t end well, but then they weren’t ever likely to. Cool Hand Luke is at best a bittersweet film, at worst agonisingly hard to view in places and it follows a man with deep flaws, completely contrary to his facade of devilish indifference and bravado. Indeed, the loss of his mother acts like the tipping point and by the end his will to live is completely gone.
I can’t really express in words or do justice to just how good this film really is. It’s fifty years old now and the very definition of a timeless classic. It’s got a beautifully written story, features a sensational, multi-faceted performance from Newman and a very strong, supporting ensemble performance from the the rest of the cast. The score is perfectly matched and the cinematography is incredible.
I absolutely recommend this one if you haven’t yet seen it.