Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin
I decided that my first review would be on the first movie I watch since putting up this blog, and luckily the first blu ray that Netflix sent me turned out to be a great one. Somehow, I had never seen Cool Hand Luke and once I got to thinking about it, I didn’t really know much about it either. I knew that it would involve a chain gang of prisoners, that Paul Newman was going to be super cool throughout, and that there would be a “failure to communicate” at some point. I was going into Cool Hand Luke fairly blind, despite its being generally considered one of the classics.
Paul Newman plays Luke Jackson, a decorated war hero turned small time crook imprisoned for “maliciously destroying municipal property while under the influence.” Luke is one individual not prone to following the rules, whether they are society’s rules, the warden’s rules, or those of the prison hierarchy. It is a pleasure to watch how Luke’s refusal to give up his individuality within multiple oppressive systems slowly transforms him from an outcast to something of a hero among his peers. It is then all the more troubling when the prison system continually tightens its grip on Luke to try and crush that individuality. However, Luke isn’t easily broken.
From the moment that the first subtle plucks of the films’ score start playing over the chain gang hard at work under smoldering Southern sun, I could tell that Cool Hand Luke would be something special. The film is filled with so many memorable scenes and characters from open to end. The first half beautifully sets up the environment that all these men have been forced to adapt to. There is a long laundry list of rules that must be obeyed to avoid spending the night “in the box,” detailed portrayals of the daily grind of life in a chain gang, and the small pleasures they cherish from the sight of a beautiful blonde seductively washing her car or an hour of rest after finishing the job early. There is a great sense of community among the prisoners, all kept in order by the group’s alpha male, an intimidatingly rough farm boy who’s nothing but a teddy bear on the inside, Dragline (played be George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning performance). Luke is quickly able to find a home in that community but does so on his own terms.
Paul Newman is simply brilliant as Luke. Behind his frequent smile and constant levelheaded calm, there is something mysterious about Luke. His refusal to fall into line with the rules can often seem foolish yet that refusal also heightens our respect for him. This paradox is never more apparent than during his ill-fated boxing match with Dragline early on in the film. Even in the face of certain defeat, Luke refuses to give in to any higher power. This moment is the turning point of the film. Once he has earned the respect of his fellow prisoners, Luke again tests his luck against almost certain defeat. This time, however, his foe is not Dragline but the warden and his guards. The stakes rise considerably and the repercussions become more severe but Luke never allows himself to be knocked out completely, like in the boxing match.
I really could go on and on and on talking about Cool Hand Luke. I barely even acknowledged that incredibly famous “failure to communicate.” The memorable cast of characters (including a very young Dennis Hopper), the great friendship between Luke and Dragline, the beautiful photography, the memorable theme that plucks and strums its way throughout, the intimidating guard with “no eyes,” or Luke’s taunts toward God’s “plan” for him could all warrant multiple paragraphs. And the powerful third act, in which Luke repeatedly challenges the prison’s power structure, is better to be experienced while watching the film than through whatever my words could convey.
When hearing of a film continually hyped as an all-time classic, like Cool Hand Luke, the expectations can sometimes be a huge burden for it to bear. However, it pleased me that Cool Hand Luke easily met the high expectations I couldn’t help but place upon it.
Mark it 9.