Cool Hand Luke at 50: How Paul Newman’s Anti-hero Still Resonates Today

The 1960s were a time of major social upheaval in the US: civil rights for black Americans and equal rights for women were at the forefront, as well as a grassroots revolt by the youth of America against the government establishment for its misguided war in Vietnam. Cinema has always been a mirror to society, reflecting the zeitgeist of the human condition at any given time, and this tumultuous period was no different. The way many filmmakers decided to shine a light on this time of protest was to often make the lead character an “anti-hero.”

The Rise Of The Anti-Hero

The anti-hero is nothing new: the concept has been around since the time of Homer. The primary impetus for the anti-hero in modern literature and film stems from profound alienation. The anti-hero does not belong in whatever social construct they are trapped in, and act out against authority, usually for their own selfish reasons.

Audiences loved the anti-heroes depicted during this time of strife: Clint Eastwood made a career out of his spaghetti western ne’er do well The Man With No Name, but for me the quintessential anti-hero of the era was Paul Newman. Practically all his movies in the ‘60s depicted some variation of the anti-hero: The Hustler, Hud, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Hombre are prime examples. But from my perspective, Cool Hand Luke is the epitome of his anti-hero films, and possibly his finest role ever. It is hard to believe the movie is 50 years old, but the themes and performances are truly timeless. When we first see Luke (Newman) he is at his most disenchanted, randomly cutting the heads off of parking meters, something a bored teen might do, not a decorated war hero. Unlike today, that type of behavior got you a two-year sentence working on the chain gang, doing back breaking labor on the side of the road in 100 degree heat. The cinematography and sound design are brilliant, showing every bead of sweat dripping from the brows of the prisoners, in tandem with the sound of the shovels against the rock hard earth.

Luke reacts to his orientation with a sarcastic sense of humor, and that typical Paul Newman smirk, which immediately raises concerns among the Captain and his guards about Luke being a “hard case.” He also bristles against his fellow prisoners, especially the top dog Dragline (in a brilliant, Academy Award winning performance by George Kennedy). After a few conflicts, Dragline calls out Luke, which brings on an impromptu boxing match in the prison yard.

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What follows is the first of innumerable physical and psychological tortures heaped on Luke. Hopelessly outmanned, Luke is beaten nearly to death, yet he keeps getting up. Amid pleas from all the inmates (Dragline included) to stay down, Luke refuses to give up, telling Dragline the only way to stop the fight is for Dragline to kill him. It is a very hard scene to watch: the beating is brutal. The inmates cannot watch anymore, and even Dragline is so disgusted he walks away. Luke struggle to his feet, alone, still swinging at the air.

This is a pivotal point: the audience sees the real Luke. He cares about nothing, and will also never bend to anyone’s will. The scene on its surface paints Luke as a nihilist, but the events that follow in the rest of the movie have decidedly religious messaging. His courage in the fight earns the glowing respect of the other prisoners, and a card game later that night cements his stature in the pecking order. He wins a huge pot by bluffing the others in the game into thinking he had a great hand, when in fact he had nothing.

“Dragline (laughing): Nothin'. A handful of nothin'. You stupid mother-head. He beat you with nothin'. Just like today when he kept comin' back at me - with nothin'. Luke: Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real Cool Hand.”

At this point Dragline falls into an intense friendship with Luke, and Luke becomes the ruler of the roost, even though he really does not want to be. The next scheme Luke comes up with, a bet where he says he can eat 50 hard boiled eggs in an hour!

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This sends the work camp into a frenzy, with fevered betting back and forth. Luke is able to down the eggs, winning the bet. The imagery and underlying subtext of the scene say much more however. There are 50 prisoners, and the egg is a long standing metaphor for the human soul, so it is no coincidence that Luke is taking on the burden of his fellow prisoners by consuming the eggs. This is further hammered home at the end of the scene, when Luke is laying on the table, arms spread in a Jesus on the cross sacrificial pose as everyone walks away, essentially abandoning him.

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Luke has a visit with his dying mother, where she gives us some insight about his troubled childhood, apologizing for essentially being responsible for his alienated view of life. Later Luke gets a telegram informing him of his mother’s death, and the Captain puts Luke in “the box,” a phone booth sized wooden box meant for punishment, as a preemptive way to stop Luke from trying to escape to attend his mother’s funeral.

He is released from the box after the funeral, but Luke is now at his wit’s end, and what follows is a series of escapes. He is caught each time, with progressively brutal physical and psychological torture designed to break him after each attempt, which leads to the most famous line in the film: “Captain: what we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week - which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it.”

One of the punishments involves the cook giving him so much rice he cannot possibly eat it, which means a night in the box as punishment. One by one, the inmates take a spoonful of the rice, mimicking the sacrament of Holy Communion, in order to save Luke from the box.

Luke is tortured by the guards in order to “get his mind right,” and he eventually succumbs. When makes his way back to the barracks he collapses, and no one helps him, much like when Jesus carried his cross along the path to his crucifiction.

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Credit: Warner Brothers

Another overtly religious metaphor is the head guard, named “Godfrey,” who never speaks a word, known as the “Man with No Eyes,” and is a defacto substitute for God. His interactions with Luke take on a religious bent in nearly every occurance. At the end of the film, Luke is on the run, and ends up in a ramshackle church, where he openly questions why God has dealt him such a bad hand. He gets no answer of course, and in the end Godfrey shoots Luke in the neck. Dragline, who was on the run as well, tackles Godfrey, knocking the sunglasses off his face and into the mud. The police car carrying the dying Luke pulls away, running over the sunglasses in the process. The car drives toward a green light, and when the car goes out of frame the light turns red, signifying Luke’s death.

At first blush most folks would call Luke an anti-hero, but the heavy religious overtones lead me to think he is more of a willing martyr. For whatever reason, be it his upbringing or other factors, he is a sad, alienated soul, and yet he is willing to take on the suffering of others at his own expense. Newman’s performance as the tragic Luke is legendary.

50 years on, Cool Hand Luke stands as a monumental film, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves cinema.



Photo Credit via Warner Brothers

SocietyRon GilmerComment