Luke Jackson is a cool, gutsy prisoner in a Southern chain gang, who, while refusing to buckle under to authority, keeps escaping and being recaptured. The prisoners admire Luke because, as Dragline explains it, "You're an original, that's what you are!" Nevertheless, the camp staff actively works to crush Luke until he finally breaks.
Paul Newman ... Luke
George Kennedy ... Dragline
J.D. Cannon ... Society Red
Lou Antonio ... Koko
Robert Drivas ... Loudmouth Steve
Strother Martin ... Captain
Jo Van Fleet ... Arletta
Clifton James ... Carr
Morgan Woodward ... Boss Godfrey
Luke Askew ... Boss Paul
Marc Cavell ... Rabbitt
Richard Davalos ... Blind Dick
Robert Donner ... Boss Shorty
Having had the advantage of reading Donn Pearce's novel about a year before seeing Cool Hand Luke, it was with great anticipation that I awaited it's transfer to the big screen. I was not disappointed.
Cool Hand Luke could easily be classified by the misguided as just a prison yarn, but it is so much more than that. It is the story of a man who refuses to be nailed down or conform to the rules and regulations of a society that he has never craved to fit into. When Lucas Jackson is arrested for cutting heads off parking meters, his explanation to the prison captain(Strother Martin) is "Small Town, not much to do in the evening", which would have us believe he was just being drunk and stupid. Later, to one of the other inmates he mutters the same answer, but importantly adds "just settlin some old scores". It is a brief but important point in helping to define the character of Luke beyond just being drunk and damaging public property. As a service man, we also discover that Luke won a bronze star, achieved the rank of sergeant but came out as a private. Again, early evidence that Luke is unable to conform to any body's rules but his own. Yet, we are given clear evidence that Luke knows what is right in principal and what is wrong. At one point in the film when they are putting Luke in the box under less than reasonable circumstances, he tells the boss, "calling it your job don't make it right, Boss." In a visit from his mother Arletta(Jo Van Fleet), Luke says plenty about his own character by telling her, "A man's got to go his own way" or as he also puts it, "I tried to live always free and above board like you but I can't seem to find no elbow room".
As Luke enters the prison that will supposedly be his home for the next two years, we meet the other inmates. Some of them wear chains, some of them do not. It is a point early in the film that director Stuart Rosenberg, emphasizes. We understand quickly that sooner or later you conform. You either walk the line the way the bosses tell you to, or they will find the means to get you to walk the line. As the Captain reiterates, "for your own good, you'll learn the rules" A point driven home often.
What we discover about their crimes is minuscule. One is jailed for manslaughter after hitting a pedestrian with his car, another is a paper hanger, another new inmate is charged with breaking, entering and assault. The nature of their crimes is unimportant to us. It enables to view these prisoners as men, and while we don't feel any genuine sympathy for them, feeling disgusted by their crimes would have been a distraction from the true purpose of Pearce's story, and Luke as the focal point.
Because of his individuality, it doesn't take Luke long before he unexpectedly becomes a hero to the other inmates. It is not a role he chooses, or even wants. It unexpectedly imposes the burden on him of having to live up to the expectations of others. He never truly understands the nature of this hero worship, and would be just as happy if he didn't have to deal with it. He is still trying to find his way in the world, and if there is any real purpose for his existence.
Another principal character is Dragline(George Kennedy). It is he who finally establishes the fact that Cool Hand Luke is a man who can not be beaten. Dragline's admiration for Luke seems to extend from the fact that he(Dragline)has learned the rules on how to get by, but yet regrets having lost some of his own individuality in the process. He is the rest of the inmates in microcosm. I can't remember a role that George Kennedy has ever been better in, and he deservedly won the best supporting actor award.
Cool Hand Luke is not without it's humorous moments especially in the early going. It is these moments that help move the film from the early stages to the darker more despairing later stages. Perhaps, for that reason alone we are even more effected by Luke's dilemma.
In translating his novel to the screen Donn Pearce along with Frank Pierson, has managed to bring the heart and soul of his nove to the big screen. Lalo Shifrin's memorable score emphasizes often the repeated drudgery of working on the chain gang. Director Stuart Rosenberg made more good films after Cool Hand Luke, but in my opinion never achieved the same degree of perfection that he does here.
As Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman give one of the most memorable performances in a long distinguished career. It is not an easy task portraying a man who travels the road from being a sincere individualist, to a man who may be beaten and defeated, yet in the end is still unwilling to accept that fate. Although Rod Steiger won the best actor award that year, one could argue that Newman's role was more difficult, as it required substantially different subtle ranges in character. As for the failure of Cool Hand Luke to achieve a Best Picture nomination, I'm at a loss to explain that malfunction, especially when the likes of Doctor Doolittle and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, far lesser efforts than this were nominated.
Cool Hand Luke is a true classic in every sense of the word. It is a film that will long be remembered.
The rebel character in Hollywood after the death of James Dean went through a period of transition and did not gain definite new characteristics until the late sixties...
The three established rebel/anti-heroes in movies were Paul Newman, Warren Beatty, and Steve McQueen...
In 1967, screen audiences were exposed to two new rebel hero characters, Clyde Barrow, a rebel without a cause with enough guts to strike out against any bank, and Luke Jackson, an anti-hero 'born to lose,' but a man full of pride and dignity...
"Cool Hand Luke" resumes Newman's career as another rebel, a non-conformist, a perfect hero who beats the system wherever...
Superbly directed by Stuart Rosenberg, Newman exhibits a complete arrangement of emotions invading every nuance and implication... Resources of his true command of his technical acting are breathtaking in their impact... The motion picture (nominated for 4 Academy Awards) won him his 4th Academy Award nomination...
Newman is again a cynical loner, but he's also charming, and everything is calculated to involve us with him; like "Hombre," the film begins and ends with closeups of his face, but here, appropriately, he has an engaging smile…
The opening, where he drinks beer, unscrews tops from parking meters and mumbles to the arriving cop, recalls Dean's drunken incoherence at the start of "Rebel Without a Cause"—an apt title for Luke… He breaks rules for no apparent reason, wherever he is, including the chain gang to which he's sentenced…
Unlike Paul Muni in "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," who steals only to eat and is turned by society into a hardened criminal, Luke is a criminal from the start, and his crime isn't motivated by hunger… It's a meaningless anti-authority gesture—the existentialist "gratuitous act," committed purely for the sake of committing it… Luke engages our sympathy not because he is economically deprived or the product of an unhappy home, but because for him the act of rebellion is its own justification: he's the perfect sixties hero…
Initially, Luke alienates the prisoners by his indifference and sarcasm, and the top dog, Dragline (George Kennedy) picks a fight with him… Luke is severely beaten but keeps fighting, and this—plus his continual defiance of the guards—wins him the men's respect… Their admiration grows when he proves he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs, one after the other, in only one hour, another gratuitous act ("somethin' to do").
But Luke gradually becomes a victim of the excessive admiration, rebelling because they expect him to, which leads to a pattern of escapes and captures… As the warden says, "What we got here is a failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach." Even though Luke becomes subservient after torture, he again escapes… Dragline admires the way he fooled the guards while planning all along to escape… But Luke says he really did break down, and asserts: "l never planned anything in my life." Even his last act is motivated not by heroism but by impulse…
The physical punishment Newman's characters often undergo reaches an extreme here, as Luke constantly invites pain (in his fight with Dragline, he says, "You're gonna have to kill me."). Underlying his sometimes vigorous rebelliousness is despair at a cruelly indifferent world… But the men need a hero, and Dragline perpetuates the myth, telling them that he had "that Luke smile" to the very end… We last see a montage of shots of Luke smiling—the men's vision of him as unbeaten and almost immortal…
Newman's performance is among his best, and Luke is one of his definitive studies of non conformism… As in "Hombre," he underplays, but in a loose, relaxed, "cool" manner… He's affecting in a wide range of moods: quiet detachment, wry contempt, raw courage, exhaustion, exuberance, gentleness, anger, resignation…
There's a superb1y understated scene in which Luke's dying mother (Jo Van Fleet) visits him… Like Rocky Graziano, he says he tried to live cleanly, but could never find a way… But the mood is quite different here: instead of intense emotion, there are on1y ingenious expressions of uneasiness, regret, sadness, acceptance… Newman conveys his unspoken affection entirely through his glances and reactions, as she wistfully remarks that she once had high hopes for him…
The actor even survives the film's pretentious attempts to make him a mock-Christ figure… Besides the obvious sacrifice-resurrection parallel, he's even shown in the exact crucifixion position following his fifty-egg (Last Supper?) ordeal… There are two badly conceived dialogs with a God he doesn't believe in—after which he realizes, "l gotta find my own way," a rather unconcealed statement of existential despair—but Newman performs them with quiet conviction….
His mock religion is better suggested by the bottle opener he wears in lieu of a religious medal… And the despair is effectively dramatized in his reaction to his mother's death… The men leave him by himself, and he sits on his bed, playing the banjo… With a sad, breaking voice, he sings a religious parody: "l don't care if it rains or freezes, long as 1 got my plastic Jesus…" He looks down and begins crying, but sings faster, obsessively, withdrawing into himself and expressing his utter loneliness in a world that has no God… It's one of the most moving scenes in all of Newman's work…
Paralleled to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Cool Hand Luke" is a character study, which works beautifully, very well-made with sense of graphic imagery and cinema view, a good-looking film with superb photography in Color, extremely good as an entertainment...
This is an absolute perfect movie in every way.Storyline,acting,settings---everything is perfect.Hollywood used to make great movies like this before it became the special effects driven computer generated movie making schlock capitol of the world.
The great Paul Newman plays a prisoner locked up in a Southern jail after a night of petty crimes.His constant struggle to be free even while locked up makes this one of the greatest roles ever seen in a movie.Newman is at his absolute peak playing the cool Lucas Jackson.I was so struck by Newman's performance in this movie I was determined to name my son Lucas Jackson,but alas,I only had daughters and my wife wasn't too thrilled about naming either of them Lucas.Oh well.
George Kennedy plays Jackson's enemy turned buddy and he is absolutely perfect also.His portrayal of Dragline is Kennedy at his finest.The sublime Strother Martin plays the prison captain and damn is he ever good.He was always so underrated as is Kennedy too,I think.
In fact this whole movie is full of familiar faces that would go on to other big time roles in TV and movies.In this movie everyone meshes perfectly to create an unforgettable movie that will stay with you long after many other movies you've seen fade from memory.
* Bette Davis was first offered the role of Luke's mother, but refused the bit part.
* Luke's prison number (37) is a reference to the Bible - Luke 1:37. ("For with God nothing shall be impossible.")
* The music cue where Luke gets the men to work faster on the road was used later for many years by many ABC television stations as their "Eyewitness News" theme.
* The movie's line "What we've got here is failure to communicate." was voted as the #11 movie quote by the American Film Institute
* The lines "What we've got here is... failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it... well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men." can be heard in the intro of the song "Civil War" by Guns N' Roses.
* Truckloads of Spanish moss was shipped from Louisiana to the set in California to hang in the trees around the prison.
* Anthony Zerbe's film debut.
* A Southern prison camp was built for this movie just north of Stockton, California. A dozen buildings were constructed, including a barracks, mess hall, warden's quarters, guard shack, and dog kennels.
* While passing by the prison camp set, a San Joaquin County building inspector thought it was a recently constructed migrant worker's complex, and posted "condemned" notices on the buildings for not being up to code.
* In the "road-tarring" sequence, the actors actually blacktopped a mile-long stretch of highway for the county.
* The company that produced the film, Jalem Productions, is owned by Jack Lemmon.