Thursday, 21 June 2012

Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Starring Paul Newman, George Kennedy, Strother Martin, Luke Askew and others

Jon's Review:

Guns n' Roses first made me aware of Cool Hand Luke. In fact, I wasn't aware, for a long time, that the "What we've got here is failure to communicate speech", as featured at the beginning of their song Civil War, was from a movie at all. Fortunately, I am now wiser and more cultured, and after horror author Gary McMahon extolled the virtues of this movie to me, I knew that I had to see it.

Newman's portrayal of Luke is enigmatic and compelling. Luke initially takes things very much in his stride, smiling through his first few weeks of imprisonment. None of his comrades on the chain gang quite know what to make of him. When Dragline (George Kennedy) perceives he has been slighted by Luke, he challenges him to a fight; a very one sided fight as it turns out. Initially the convicts cheer on the boxing match, but when it becomes obvious that Luke is going to get punched in the face repeatedly with little chance of getting his jabs in, the cheers soon fall silent. And still Luke takes his punches. The phrase 'turn the other cheek' comes to mind, and, indeed, there are certain religious undertones in the film. Much of the movie seems to be concerned with what men who have no hope find to keep themselves going. The famous egg eating scene is a good example of this.

Trying to eat fifty hard boiled eggs is an entirely pointless and pretty stupid act. However, this challenge brings the whole gang together as they cheer on Luke as he stuffs his face. This is about more than a ridiculous challenge; the convicts have begun to instill their hopes in the figure of Luke - he offers them the possibility that a man can endure in impossible circumstances. The scene is both gruelling and horrifying (as Luke painfully gorges himself) but it is also uplifting and poignant.

The other scene in the film that I found very powerful was the aftermath of Luke's mother dying. Luke takes his banjo, sits on his bunk and starts to sing Plastic Jesus:

Well I don't care if it rains or freezes/ Long as I have my plastic Jesus

While Luke is our figure of hope, our martyr to the ideal that a man can endure anything with a great inner strength, he also talks to us about the fragility of faith in trying circumstances.

We're rooting for Luke all through the movie, regardless of his past. When he escapes we're there urging him on and when he's given the task of repeatedly digging a pointless trench until he is so exhausted he seems to be on the verge of death, we feel his pain.

Cool Hand Luke works because it has a remarkable cast and a remarkable script. But beneath the story of a man down on his luck, there is a big story about big themes that concern us all. It is a deeply brilliant, deeply powerful movie, and I can't recommend it enough.

(10 out of 10)

Ali's Review:

Can I just add that Jon has a more cultured taste in films now because of myself? I introduced him to Ealing comedies, Powell & Pressberger...OK, you get the picture.

Cool Hand Luke has been on my lovefilm list for a long time, not least because of being a fan of Paul Newman but also because the film was produced by Jack Lemmon's company, and Jack is the greatest actor ever, FACTOMUNDO in my book. And I knew about the famous egg-eating contest.

The film opens with Newman as Luke knocking parking meters off their poles (Newman knocked actual ones in a local town off their poles and they weren't replaced in a year). You get the impression that Luke has been doing this kind of thing for years since being a young boy, and he may not have got the best start in life, but that doesn't prevent him beaming at the cops as they arrest him and we next see a chain gang working in the intense heat of the US roadsides, countryside as flat as a pancake, and men working at the field with scythes. I love the shot where we first see Luke arriving through the mirrored glasses of the Captain.

It is back-breaking work and we begin to see familiar faces in their youth - Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton and Anthony Zerbe all in early roles in their career. Can I just say that Stanton sings well? Luke quietly immerses himself in the life of the gang, befriending  Dragline (George Kennedy) after a fight and it is their friendship which is the most poignant part of the whole film.

You are rooting for Luke the whole way through, as Jon says, and each time the system appears to be about to break him, he rallies back and fights his way through and earns the respect of the gang. Newman portrays Luke as a man down on his luck with quiet intelligence and thoughtfulness. Kennedy lends strong support and I found Moorgan Woodward's portrayal of Boss Godfrey absolutely chilling and apparently he acted like his character in between takes and spoke to no one, never taking his glasses off. He and his leaders relentlessly torment Luke and the scene where Luke repeatedly has to dig the trench and refill it again is one of the most painful scenes I've ever watched.

Certainly aimed at the guys though this film is, particularly with one scene where a young woman torments the guys as they work at the roadside by washing her car in a very tight dress and not exactly being subtle about it, lots of heaving bosoms and close-ups of upper thighs. Very funny, don't get me wrong and endlessly repeated in films that followed, whereas us ladies, yes, we get to see sweaty men as they work but we only get to see a guy's startlingly white bum before he goes into the shed as punishment but when it comes to Paul's turn, do we get to see Paul's bum? No. Obviously not in his contract. Just an aside there.

This is an uplifting and brilliant film about a man who will not be beaten and his buoyancy of and resilience of the human spirit. Enjoy. And full credit to Mr Lemmon for financing it.

(10 out of 10)


  1. Great reviews. You've convinced me that I want to see this film. I've seen trailers for it like forever, but I never had any inkling what it was about. Sounds interesting, and I reckon it probably has some 60ish political metaphor in it too given when it was made.
    Keep up the good work.

  2. Great reviews guys! I've loved Cool Hand Luke ever since I saw it as a kid - although, like films like Jacob's Ladder, it's a bit too painful for viewing too often. For me the film really triangulates the conflict in every person between the desire for absolute freedom and the necessity for compromise for group belonging - a conflict which is impossible to resolve, and the film happily goes out on that ambiguity.

    In some ways you can compare Cool Hand Luke to Kafka's "The Trial"; a man, who considered himself free, finds himself suddenly ensnared in the webs of the "justice system", and is destroyed by it. But, like Josef K, Luke is existentially guilty; his attacks on parking meters (a great symbol - society forbidding you from simply *existing* in a certain location without paying the price) from the beginning show his instinctive rejection of society's will to curtail his own vital self-expression. And, again like Josef K, the film poses the same dilemman: Luke yearns wordlessly to be "free" - yet free *from* what? Free *for* what? Ultimately his struggle is like a dog yanking at a leash; it's only the existence of the leash that creates the meaning of the struggle - there can be no victory.

    I think it's possible to see a spiritual message in Cool Hand Luke - but perhaps only in a nihilistic sense. Luke's struggle is ultimately meaningless except as an example of pure struggle; it's the purest example of tragedy, of an individual raising his own will up against the forces of fate, the world, society, and willingly / inevitably being crushed by it. From a Christian point of view, you could argue that Luke's example, as a symbol of human existence, can only be given meaning from outside - from an external and all-loving god. Equally, though, you can see it as a profoundly nihilistic or existentialist film: life has no meaning beyond the expression of self-will against inevitably irresistible and fatal odds. Given the time the film was made and the actors involved, I'm inclined to think the latter interpretation is the true spirit of the film.