Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenburg, 1967)

“What we’ve got here … is failure to communicate…”


I remember at University I watched One Night at McCool’s and, mentioning to a friend that a certain car-washing scene was clearly referencing Cool Hand Luke, he replied that he was suprised I had seen such a film. Apparently, it wasn’t the ‘type’ of film I would watch. At the time, it probably wasn’t. Indeed, I had not seen the film at thatr point in my life. I just knew that any car-washing involving women pressing-themselves against a soaking-wet car, pouring suds onto their chest, is always from Cool Hand Luke. I think I knew this because a “50 Sexiest Scenes from Films” programme placed this sequence in the Top 10. As a teenager, I wasn’t going to forget that. But there is so much more to this unforgettable classic…

Nothing to Lose

The set-up is simple. Luke (Paul Newman) has been placed in prison for vandalising parking meters in a small town. For his sentence, he is sent to a prison camp whereby the prisoners pave roads and cut down long-grass. Its a labour-camp like no other, but Luke inspires the prisoners within through refusing to “stay down” after a fight with inmate Dragline (George Kennedy) and after winning a flippant bet to eat fifty hard-boilded eggs within an hour. The name “Cool Hand” Luke is given after he wins a game of poker by bluffing what he has – telling the inmates that when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.

The idea of hope in such dire circumstances is what truly separates this film from the pack. It is not a story of redemption or simply a bad-guy-turns-good. It is much more. Through paving a road Luke manages to earn 2-hours of peace for the inmates as the job is completed faster than expected. The challenge of fifty-eggs manages to, for a few moments, give the prisoners something different to think about. The comparison to The Shawshank Redemption is clear and overwhelming, but there is a crucial difference. After eating fifty eggs, Luke lays on the table almost naked. Arms outstretched, legs together in a clear Christ-like crucifix. But Luke doesn’t believe in God – and the prisoners idolise Luke. The Shawshank Redemption is known to be an uplifting, Christian-story of hope. Cool Hand Luke is almost the opposite – as, I believe, it directly challenges faith in the world and argues atheism at its heart.

Faith and its Falseness

Following the visit from Luke’s mother, he manages to become inspirational. It is this section whereby Luke provides hope to the convicts. But then his Mother passes away and, rather than speak about seeing her in the afterlife, he sings the following song:

“Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin’ on the dashboard of my car/ Comes in colors, pink and pleasant, glows in the dark cause it’s irridescent … Take it with you when you travel far.

Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones sittin’ on a pedestal of abalone shell
Goin’ ninety, I ain’t scary, ’cause I’ve got the Virgin Mary, assurin’ me that I won’t go to Hell.”

His Mother has passed and, rather than pray, he reminds himself that faith is crutch people use to hold them up in times of need. Faith is the hope that people cling to, to convince them that the world around them is safe. In the same way the prisoners cling onto him, to take their mind off the reality about how confined they truly are. The scene is followed almost immediately by the guards telling Luke that he will be staying in ‘The Box’ for days, as many prisoners often try to run after a family members die. As if to highlight how the brutality and cruelty between humans is more ‘real’ than a plastic Jesus telling you everything will be okay. For Luke, it is not okay – and his justification for his atheism is due to human nature. How can there be a God when people treat each other so badly? How can a prisoner commit a sin in the first place, if they truly believe that God will judge them in the afterlife?

The iconic line that hits the first time after Luke fails to escape – “What we’ve got here… is failure to communicate” works both ways. In the same way that Luke understands how he is expected to act – he disagree’s with the harsh-labour expected of him in correlation to his crime. Like faith, and indeed, prayer – the lack of verbal communication highlights the falseness of faith. There is no understanding or clarification to the true realities of the world. Especially in the few texts available – the vast interpretations of the Bible, unto itself, show a “lack of communication” from God’s part. Within the context of the prison, this lack of communicationis is personified in the ‘Walking Boss’ (Morgan Woodward). A prison guard who doesn’t speak and always wears sunglasses – therefore we never see his eyes. This man has no soul and only exists to create fear amongst the prisoners. He is a perfect marksman. He can, and will, shoot you if he needs to. The camera often cuts to Woodward when the Captain (Strother Martin) speaks – as if to highlight how he may be the true Captain.

Does the ‘Walking Boss’ protect the men? Does he support them or give them strength? Does he help the men when they are in times of trouble? No. It seems that he simply watches and he takes away any hope they have. Luke becomes the prisoner’s Saviour – and the hope that they cling onto:

“Hope becomes a coping mechanism, a way of convincing yourself that it’s better to contemplate Luke’s gloriously failed escape than to stage one’s own, and the net effect of actual “subversion” is to make the situation worse.” – Adam K (An und fur sich)

The site, An und fur sich, even goes so far to say how Luke himself is akin to the character Lucille (The girl who washes the car in one scene). She teases the hope of escape and a future – and Luke does this too. Luke acts as if he is free – and this is what the prisoners want too. We might be able to be subjective about what Luke either is, or symbolises, but we are also shown Luke’s inner struggle too. And Luke is no Andy DuFrane

The Opposite to Shawshank

The Shawshank Redemption ends by (spoilers…) Andy Dufrane (Tim Robbins), the innocent man in Shawshank Prison, escaping through the back of his prison cell. Something he personally worked at, chipping away at it for many years, before achieving his escape to a heavenly beach. Rosenburg directs Cool Hand Luke to show how when Luke escapes, it provides hope for the convicts. Until he is returned. He tells the prisoners about how a policeman, purely by chance, found him. We are not shown this – and we question the truth to this story, but the fact remains: He is caught.

He tries again and manages to succeed. He sends a picture of his exploits as he sits with two attractive women. The prisoners are amazed – fascinated by his escape and they talk about it as if Luke was a myth. Until he is brought back, again. He is covered in blood and has been beaten by the guards. No chains can bind him perhaps and “the man” always catches up with him. He tells the prisoners the picture is phoney. He is physically and mentally tortured by the guards before “cracking” and getting his “mind right”. This man is not the quiet, sensitive hero. When Luke “cracks”, it is tragic.

In The Shawshank Redemption, an important – I’d say crucial element – to the story is his innocence. Andy Dufrane is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Luke, in this film, has comitted a crime. There is no doubt about this as we see him commit the crime in the opening sequence. Whilst Dufrane mocks the authority, Luke directly challenges it. He confronts it by almost ignoring the shckles that bind him. He charms the guards so that they even see the injustice as they apologise when told to place him ‘the box’. The finale of the two films are also tragically different. Whilst Dufrane successfully escapes (on the first attempt), Luke escapes three times – and the last time shows how institutionalised Dragline is. Indeed, Dragline still believes the chance the police will give them. But again, the “failure to communicate” is what kills Luke. God doesn’t offer a hand when Luke turns to him – and, as if to show the cruelty of man, as soon as Luke shows his face, he is shot down. 

There is a little ambiguity over Luke’s true character – did he really make a “phoney” picture? did he “crack” under pressure? I believe this is the same with regard to a certai ambiguity over the scathing attack it has on faith. Luke turns to God as a cynic. He doesn’t want to believe – at no point has he wanted to believe. The notes I have raised are primarily from his perspective – and maybe we are not expected to see the story in the same light. Should we see it as a moral tale about someones refusal to accept God – and the consequences?

We know that Hollywood has a difficult time in clearly showing us a story that actively attempts to dismiss faith. The horrendous execution of The Golden Compass is a tribute to what happens when someone bastardizes an atheists argument in fictional form. In the sixties, this must’ve been much more difficult. Ambiguity is neccessary – but I think we see the point.

People turn to faith because they need hope. Because they need something to tell them there is more to this world than the cruelty and inhumane treatment between others. Ironically, it is the inhumanity which is real – and faith which is unreal.

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