COOL HAND LUKE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Stars: Paul Newman, George
Kennedy, Strother Martin, Morgan Woodward, Jo Van Fleet
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Audio: English mono, French mono
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Color, letterbox widescreen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Commentary, Making-of documentary, trailer
Length: 126 minutes
Release Date: September 9, 2008
“Stay down, you’re beat.”
“You’re going to have to kill me.”
Film *** ˝
In the best of his early film roles, Paul Newman was no stranger to portraying screen rebels. Whether as the internally-conflicted Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Fast Eddie in The Hustler, Newman presented the screen image of an angry, frustrated young man struggling against societal conventions from which he often felt trapped. The anti-establishment film Cool Hand Luke (1967) offers yet another variation on this rebellious screen persona, albeit in an older, perhaps more world-weary character this time.
Cool Hand Luke is a film crafted in the grand tradition of such 1930’s gangster capers as I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but updated for 1960’s sensibilities. In the film, Paul Newman portrays Luke Jackson, a decorated war vet who in a fit of drunken spontaneity decides one evening to vandalize a series of parking meters. For his lapse of judgment, Luke is subsequently sentenced to two years’ hard labor as part of a chain gang. Though a flawed nonconformist with issues concerning authority, Luke becomes the film’s sympathetic protagonist, an anti-hero whose unwavering spirit and strength of character redeem him in the eyes of his prison peers. Like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Luke will suffer greatly but will ultimately serve as inspiration for his comrades-in-captivity.
Much of Cool Hand Luke takes place in a backwater, southern rural setting (meant to be Florida) where withering heat simmers in waves off the dirt roads and a mind-numbing ennui seemingly permeates through every fabric of daily life. For the men of Road Prison 36, the days are a monotonous procession of backbreaking menial chores - hacking away at roadside weeds, tarring seldom-used roads, cleaning filthy ditches. Disobedience or failure to kowtow to the whims of the sometimes sadistic guards is frequently rewarded with solitary confinement in “the box,” a miserably small, wooden sweat shack meant to break the prisoners’ spirit.
Initially, Luke avoids the ire of the prison guards despite his spontaneous and sometimes unpredictable nature (by his own admittance, Luke never plans anything). He saves for defiance for his fellow convicts, with one such act of obstinacy landing him in a boxing match with the prison camp heavy, Dragline (George Kennedy). The overmatched Luke is repetitively knocked down and physically whipped, yet his fearless, go-for-broke mentality begins to earn him the admiration in his fellow convicts. Luke may not be the strongest or the fittest among the men, but he never yields or gives up, seemingly willing to resist to the limits of his strength and endurance. In short, Luke is one cool cat who dances to the beat of his own personal rhythm. By doing so, Luke soon finds himself adopted as the emotional crutch and hero figure for these desperate men, who for so long have been marginalized and essentially cast out from society.
Luke’s new role as leader among these prisoners, even if reluctantly or inadvertently so, is not lost on the guards. When his dying mother, literally transported on her death bed, visits him to bid a poignant final farewell to her favorite son, the guards recognize the means through which to break his spirit. Inevitably, as his mother’s visit triggers a series of ever-bolder escape attempts by Luke, the guards seize the opportunity to inflict ever crueler and more severe punishment upon him.
Whether self-serving or self-sacrificial, Luke’s actions inspire the convicted men, who celebrate each new demonstration of defiance as though to vicariously share the burden of this brave martyr in his resistance against oppression. Indeed, actions speak louder than words, a mantra by which Luke seemingly lives (as does his great nemesis in the film, gun-wielding Boss Godfrey).
Cool Hand Luke was based on a novel by Don Pearce, a former chain gang convict himself. The film can be regarded as a conglomeration of many film genres - a prison breakout film, a buddy film, and an update of classic Depression-era gangster capers, for instance. It is also an anti-establishment film about one man's solitary struggle against the powers-that-be. We must also consider the era in which the film was made, as Cool Hand Luke is most certainly a film that tangentially addresses the difficulties of post-war adjustment facing many veterans.
However one regards the film, by the conclusion of Cool Hand Luke, its anti-hero Luke is able to transcend his mere mortality to become something greater than himself, something more worthy of idolization than a simple convict. Indeed, for anyone who observes carefully, there are a number of Christ allusions sprinkled throughout Cool Hand Luke. But perhaps a more fitting analogy can be drawn with Jimmy Stewart’s Ransom Stoddard from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for whom it is said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And Luke Jackson does indeed, for all his flaws, become legend.
Video *** ˝
This re-issue of Cool Hand Luke sports restored images, sharp and bright colors, and an exceptionally pristine appearance given the film’s age. It is an improvement over the previous Warner Bros. disc.
“What we’ve got here...is failure to communicate.”
Audio is offered in remastered English or French monaural. Dialogue is crisp and clean. The score is sparse but effective with a bluegrass, folksy quality. Dynamic range is adequate for this film, which does not require particularly bombastic sound environments.
Features ** ˝
This disc replaces the mostly bare-bones former Cool Hand Luke disc. The re-issue now offers some new supplemental features, including a generally informative commentary track. Film historian and Newman biographer Eric Lax discusses the source novel, the careers of the impressive ensemble cast and crew members, the Lalo Schifrin score, the Frank Pierson script, and religious imagery in the film.
In the documentary “A Natural-Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke” (29 min.), former cast and crew members reminisce about their experiences during the film’s production. Among the anecdotes are amusing memories of the famous “Lucille” car washing sequence, the egg-eating sequence, and the Dragline-vs.-Luke boxing bout.
There is also a vintage trailer for the film.
BONUS TRIVIA: Keep an eye out for a young Dennis Hopper as one of the prisoners.
Cool Hand Luke: Deluxe Edition is a fine presentation of the classic Paul Newman drama and is superior to the previously available version of this film on disc.