Revisiting a Classic: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

In the hit late 1990’s cartoon Recess, the teacher Ms. Finster devises a devilish punishment for the playground miscreants: the box. The protagonist, T.J. Detweiler, is forced to spend a whole ten minutes of his recess in the box. Referencing, of course, the first night in the prison camp for the titular character, this episode of Recess shows the lasting impact that Cool Hand Luke had on the collective memory of society. With an Oscar nomination for Paul Newman, and a win for Best Supporting Actor for George Kennedy, Cool Hand Luke is one of those movies that gets constantly referred to in other pop culture. Still listed as 100% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes 46 years after its release, Cool Hand Luke is highly regarded as a classic film in every sense of the word.
A decorated war hero with a history of insubordination, Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) gets 2 years of hard labor in a Florida prison camp for drunkenly cutting the tops off of parking meters. He makes a quick enemy out of Dragline (George Kennedy), and after a boxing match in which Luke refuses to give up, they become fast friends, and Luke begins to emerge as a leader, motivating the inmates to finish paving a road in less than a day. After eating fifty eggs (“No man can eat fifty eggs!”), Luke truly gains “leadership” of the group, but is sent to the box by the Captain (the warden), fearing Luke will escape after he learns his mother has died. Luke makes several unsuccessful attempts to escape, and his final attempt leaves the audience with a twisted end and an oddly-satisfying sense of Luke as a tragic hero.
Cool Hand Luke is a great example of the prison escape genre of film, utilizing many archetypes of characterization, such as a rebellious inmate who may be serving an unjust term (or not, as the case may be), a warden as the main antagonist, and the process of gaining respect from his fellow inmates. The camera spends a lot of time on Paul Newman, despite having a pretty loaded cast list, and being that Cool Hand Luke was shot at the height of his popularity as an actor, it’s no surprise the film features gratuitous scenes of Newman sans shirt. The eyecandy of Paul Newman is nothing, however, compared to the gorgeous composition of shots within the movie, often looking down at the prisoners, never up. It paints them in the light of exactly what they are: criminals. Additionally, the soundtrack is surprisingly versatile for 1967. The scene when Luke eats fifty eggs comes to mind, when another prisoner taps on Luke’s stomach, and is rewarded with a dull thudding sound, as if to say he couldn’t possibly consume another egg.
The famous line, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” will forever be immortalized due to the film, even sampled by Guns ‘N’ Roses for “Civil War” on their Lose Your Illusion II album in 1991. Every film has its handful of haters, but as Captain states, “Some men, you just can’t reach.”



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