Cool Hand Luke: A Tough Egg to Crack

HE WAS A COOL CUSTOMER… UNTIL THE LAW MADE IT HOT FOR HIM!

Donn Pearce, who turns 90 in September, has lived an adventurous life – and knows what it’s like to be incarcerated. During World War II, he served a few days in the stockade after going AWOL. After the war, he did some time in a French prison for counterfeiting American money. He escaped, made it all the way to Canada, slipped across the border and became a burglar and safecracker. After getting caught, he did two years in Florida on a chain gang.

In the 1960s, his first novel ”Cool Hand Luke” was turned into a major film and he subsequently found a new career as a novelist and freelance writer. He has a small role in Cool Hand Luke as one of the convicts and must have been the best kind of adviser to have for the cast and crew.

After getting arrested for vandalizing parking meters, Lucas ”Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) is sentenced to two years in prison and sent to a chain gang where he learns that if any of the warden’s rules are broken the punishment is a night in ”the box”. Luke has a problem with authority and doesn’t even recognize the intimidating Dragline (George Kennedy) as leader among the convicts. That leads to a bloody confrontation, but with an unusual ending that has Dragline and the other prisoners slowly beginning to respect Luke – it is Dragline who comes up with the nickname ”Cool Hand Luke”. Luke becomes increasingly popular among the convicts, but a life-altering event changes his outlook and he attempts an escape…

A good year for Newman
Newman was already a huge star at the time of this film’s making, but the role of Luke earned him an Oscar nomination and made him even more popular. 1967 was a very good year for Newman; the revisionist Western Hombre was another opportunity for him to play a somewhat restrained character who may not fit all that well into society.
”Cool Hand Luke” is a war hero who’s fallen on hard times, which turned the character into a comment on the Vietnam War as well; having a hard time respecting authority, especially when it has a touch of fascism as the warden and his men do in this movie, is about as American as apple pie.

Luke’s constant attempts to escape are almost heartbreaking and there is certainly an element of tragedy here. But there’s also a lot of humor. Luke should remind many in the audience of Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), another charming prisoner you just can’t keep locked up forever. A bizarre egg-eating contest has become a classic scene and another symbol of Luke’s stubborn defiance. He is usually interpreted as a Christ figure, sacrificing himself for a noble cause; some of the symbolism supports that view. Kennedy is terrific as Dragline, a hulk of a man who commands respect and wants to be the one the others look up to, but there’s something about Luke that touches him and he ends up becoming his greatest champion over time.

The cast is full of memorable supporting efforts, including Jo Van Fleet as Luke’s ailing mother who visits him in one poignant scene, and Morgan Woodward as the steely Boss Godfrey whose mirrored sunglasses have become a perfect example of coldblooded authoritarianism.

Brilliantly photographed by Conrad L. Hall who finds ingenious ways to illustrate the crushing nature of the opposition Luke faces, as well as the oppressive heat of the Florida sun as the chain gang continue their never-ending work by the road (even though most of the movie was shot in California). Lalo Schifrin delivered a music score that’s both jazzy and rural; part of it would live on for years, quaintly enough, as a theme for local ABC newscasts. 

Cool Hand Luke 1967-U.S. 126 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Gordon Carroll. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg. Screenplay: Donn Pearce, Frank R. Pierson. Novel: Donn Pearce. Cinematography: Conrad L. Hall. Music: Lalo Schifrin. Cast: Paul Newman (Lucas ”Luke” Jackson), George Kennedy (Dragline), J.D. Cannon (Society Red), Lou Antonio, Robert Drivas, Strother Martin… Jo Van Fleet, Wayne Rogers, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Clifton James.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Kennedy).

Quote: “What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.” (Martin)

Last word: “Paul knew as much about playing a banjo as I know about making cakes, which means very, very little. But he wanted to play his own accompaniment, and director Stuart Rosenberg and everybody else said, ‘You don’t learn to play banjo that easily.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m going to try.’ And [in] the scene you see, Paul makes an error. He wasn’t doing it the way he wanted and became madder and madder…although you can only [tell] by the increase of the pace of his picking the banjo. When it was over, it was magnificent. Rosenberg said, ‘Print.’ Paul said, ‘I could do it better.’ Rosenberg said, ‘Nobody can do it better.’ And that’s the way that came off. True story.” (Kennedy, Entertainment Weekly)

 

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