"What we have here is… failure to communicate." -- Strother Martin (Captain, Road Prison), "Cool Hand Luke."
This quote arrived into the movie lore in the late '60s, as a whole generation of USA was rebelling against the establishment, this sentiment - that of a failure to communicate - exposed the social climate. That traditional object of compassion and sorrow, the chain-gang prisoner, is given as strong a presentation as ever he has had on the screen in Cool Hand Luke. The Academy-Award winning prison drama starring Paul Newman in one of his quintessential roles as a defiant chain-gang convict suffering a “failure to communicate."
Cool Hand Luke shows us a time, when one could not make a movie with a allegorical existential hero, but also stock it with an ensemble from the Actors Studio. Paul Newman's Luke represents a guy standing against a authoritarian regime, so almost everyone who watches the movie, regardless of where in the socio-political spectrum they fall, will identify with Luke. Cool Hand Luke is about one man's struggle for personal freedom, a man's need to persevere.
PlotLuke (Paul Newman) is a restrained young fellow who is picked up by the police at the beginning of this movie and sent off to a correctional work-camp in what for the minor offense of vandalizing parking meters. He is a war hero, won the silver and bronze star, but also a loner and sarcastic misanthrope, who doesn't care no more. In the prison, Luke seems to be a quiet and respected fellow. But, when a conflict with the unofficial leader, Dragline (George Kennedy), leads to a boxing match, Luke refuses to back down, even when he is clearly over-matched and beaten.
This obstinacy earns him the respect of even the most hardened of the bunch, including Dragline, who dubs him "Cool Hand Luke." That event is the turning point for him, which fuels his desire to escape again and again, and also makes him come under the Captain's (Strother Martin) thumb. They begin a systematic crusade to break Luke once and for all, because his independent spirit is something they cannot tolerate.
In a most significant role of his career, Paul Newman as Luke gives one of the most powerful performances in the cinematic history. Newman's innate likability is critical to our acceptance of this somewhat dour, pugnacious character as a hero. Luke keeps defying people's expectations and continues to be a rebel without a cause. This kind of character might have inspired the role of Jack Nicholson's in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", and Tim Robbins in "The Shawshank Redemption." George Kennedy won an Academy award for his burly Dragline, whose distrust of Luke quickly turns to affection. Kennedy's Dragline is a fully accompolished character who escapes the "tough guy behind bars" type to reveal an engaging personality.
Jo Van Fleet as Luke's mother is valiant in her role, especially in the lengthy scene, where Luke visits his dying mother, smoking and propped up in a flatbed truck for a final visit. Strother Martin as the captain didn't get any recognition from the academy award, but his work has gone down as one of the best in cinematic lore. Veteran TV director Stuart Rosenberg made his feature debut with this movie. His sense of graphic imagery and cinema pace are one of the merits of Cool Hand Luke. Through Rosenberg's direction, we can feel the oppressive heat, the elation as Luke, and the anguish as the bosses try to break Luke.
Frank Pierson's screenplay adapted from Donn Pearce's novel is laden with Christian iconography.It's not hard to look at the allegorical Messiah-figure preaching to his disciples (the other prisoners), while being persecuted by the authorities, and he also experiences a betrayal from a friend. The script feels authentic with its portrayal of chain gang. Conrad Hall's magical cinematography beautifies the road gang's day into painterly landscapes. The best thing about Cool Hand Luke is there's nothing that seems dated, even 45 years after its initial release. The message is equally clear to us as it was for the audience of turbulent 1967: that the power of the individual can not be simply erased when it stands as an example to others.
Watch Cool Hand Luke for the charismatic performance of Paul Newman, for its engaging characters, an intriguing parable, and for a slate of thoughtful ideas.