Untimely Movie Review: Cool Hand Luke

With my renewed, pandemic-commitment to reviewing the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection, I moved on to the next film in the collection, Cool Hand Luke.

Like Doctor Zhivago and numerous other titles in the set, Cool Hand Luke is based on a book I’ve never read.  Unlike most of the other book-based titles, Cool Hand Luke does a much better job of not seeming like a book.

Whereas most book-to-film translations are plagued by seeming at once too much and too little, this movie does not: through a customarily excellent Paul Newman performance, we come to understand who Luke Jackson is via just a handful of subtle but potent scenes.

What’s less subtle is the Christian imagery, which includes not one, but two on-the-nose pseudo-crucifixions.

In short, Luke Jackson is a Christ figure for the inmates of the Florida work camp that is the subject of the film.  He is first met with heavy skepticism, but, through his example, gradually attracts and inspires followers who ultimately remember him and his “works,” even after his death.  The film examines prison life, or at least as it is meant to have existed in early 1950s Florida.

Cool Hand Luke is a rare example of a film that holds a 100 percent positive rating on the movie-review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes.  And deservedly so—the movie is quite good.

Oddly, though, it received relatively little acclaim from the Academy, not even being nominated for Best Picture that year.  It did receive four total nominations, including Newman for Best Actor, but that was the same number of nominations that The Dirty Dozen and In Cold Blood received that same year, and fewer nominations than seven other movies received in 1967.

That group of films included some far less impactful titles, such as Camelot (five nominations) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (seven nominations).

Strangely enough, George Kennedy won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, despite the (obvious) New Yorker sporting an accent that was noticeably inauthentic, even by 1960s film standards.  Still, the performance itself is solid, and certainly pivotal to driving the narrative.

The cast features a galaxy of young stars who went on to bigger roles later—everyone from Wayne Rogers to Dennis Hopper to Joe Don Baker to Harry Dean Stanton.  Each of them has a small but memorable part.

But, these noteworthy names aside, what makes the film in my opinion is the atmosphere.  An outdoor, but somehow claustrophobic rural prison that evokes fear, sympathy, camaraderie, astonishment, and hatred.  Most of the guards are one-dimensional characters, but that’s by design, and Strother Martin has a memorable turn as the prison’s “captain.”  Despite not having much screentime or many lines, Martin’s character’s is central to Luke’s transformation from fairly compliant, affable inmate to persistently anti-authoritarian hero.

In particular, Captain’s decision to place Luke in “the box” preemptively to prevent him from trying to escape to attend his mother’s funeral is the turning point of the film.  Up to then, Luke’s rebellious streak hasn’t manifested beyond a few overly-casual exchanges with prison authority figures.  Luke, in fact, doesn’t attempt his first escape until after he’s put in the box for the first time, which is likely a commentary on the effects of incarceration.

This turn of events, however, exposes what I see as the one weakness of the film: Newman’s character is already most of the way through a mere two-year sentence (for damaging parking meters!) before he attempts to break out.  While Luke’s potency as anti-authoritarian is obvious, the fact that he gets himself killed rebelling against that authority with just months to go on his sentence undercuts the Christ-like qualities that he might otherwise possess (and which we are meant to register as viewers).  Kennedy’s character, Dragline, even references Luke’s short remaining stint at one point, before everything goes south.

Regardless, this is a great film that deserves the acclaim it has achieved over the years.  Although I think Singin’ in the Rain—another 100-percent-rated Rotten Tomatoes movie—is better overall, they’re similar in that they are both outstanding films that became even more well-respected and appreciated with the passage of time.

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1 Response to Untimely Movie Review: Cool Hand Luke

  1. Great review; I’d argue the point that it’s specifically because the sentence is only two years that Luke’s rebellion is so significant. They film’s creators could have come up with any reason for him to be sentenced, but the crime and the punishment they chose are no-big-deal by movie standards. If he was sentenced to life, he’d have good reason to rebel and nothing to lose, but here, he rebels because that’s who he is. Whatever one makes of the story of Christ, he’s not a man with mothing to lose when he goes to the cross. Just my opinion!

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