Southern Movie 40: “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)

As far as I’m concerned, Cool Hand Luke is the one of the best movies ever made. Released in 1967 at the height of Paul Newman’s fame, it was preceded by the Southern movies Long, Hot Summer and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, both from 1958, Sweet Bird of Youth from 1962, and the Texas-set classic Hud from 1963. Yet, it was George Kennedy’s portrayal of big-talking leader-turned-follower Dragline that won the film’s only Oscar (though Newman was nominated). Cool Hand Luke is the story of an anti-hero extraordinaire, a man who laughs in the face of brutality, who refuses stay down when beaten, and whose joi-de-vivre transcends the furthest reaches of authority.

Cool Hand Luke opens startlingly with the red Violation tag of a parking meter popping onto the screen. Next, we see a staggering drunk using a pipe wrench to take the meters off their poles, each falling to the ground in turn. Finally, the man half-falls, half-sits on the ground and we get to see his face as light illuminates it while he opens another beer. He squints in the brightness, and two officers are there, one saying, “You better come with us, buddy.” The drunk smiles joyously and begins to laugh, and the titling tells us who he is: Cool Hand Luke.

As the credits roll, the scene shifts to hot and sunny rural roadside where a crew of sweaty men in blue prison garb swing their blades to clear brush. The bosses holding rifles crouch in the road and sporadically give permission for a man to wipe his brown or to sip water. After a few moments, a truck carrying new convicts passes by, and two of the men make a bet on how many there will be.

The new prisoners then unload in the empty camp, having arrived while everyone else is still working, and they are met by two guards and the warden, who is sprawling lazily in a rocking chair on his front porch. A trusty called Dog Boy and his bloodhound lurk nearby, watching. The four men in prison-issue pants and their own shirts are addressed one by one, and one-by-one they attempt to respond but are met with cold intimidation from one gun-toting guard named Honeycutt.  Lucas Jackson has been sentenced to two years for defacing public property— an inordinately long sentence. When he fesses up to the nasal-voiced warden that he was chopping the heads off of parking meters, the warden asks, “What’d you think that was gon’ get you?” to which Luke replies, “I guess you could say I wasn’t thinking, cap’n.” The warden also shares that Luke is a veteran with a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and several Purple Hearts but failed to rise above the rank of private. Luke says sardonically, “I guess I was just passing time, cap’n.”

The four new inmates are then peppered with harshly worded rules, after receiving an admonition from the warden that he can be a “real mean sumbitch.” The men change their shirts in the bunkhouse as the cigar-chewing Carl the Floorwalker explains the dos and don’ts, punctuating each item with the same punishment: spending the night in the box. As he finishes, he catches Luke mouthing the words and smiling, and says pointedly, “I hope ain’t going to be a hard case.” Luke smiles silently but does not respond.

Soon, the men arrive from their work day, and the new arrivals have a whole new set of rules to learn: whose seat is whose, how each man gets a nickname. Here, we meet Dragline, the big, mouthy leader among the convicts, who attempts to engage Luke but is thwarted by Luke’s amused apathy. The evening passes quickly, and the dozens of men are out the door around sunrise to another work day. Somewhat pathetically, one of the new men, a friendly salesman who is naive to these harsh realities, gets tricked into paying a dollar for easy work, and when he asks for it, he gets shoved by the guard Honeycutt who points a gun in his face and says, “Get to work.” Which they do, swinging sling blades through dry brush in the hot sun. Another of the new men passes out in the heat before lunch. As they work, we also meet the walking boss Godfrey, called The Man with No Eyes for his mirrored sunglasses and his stoic silence. That evening, when the men return to camp, the duped inmate is put in the box for talking back to Honeycutt about the easy  job he thought he bought. The other men look on. Back in the bunkhouse, some of the convicts lament what happens, while others say that it will do him good to learn the rules: no talking back.

The next day begins before dawn, as the trucks roll through the blue morning with their headlights on. The men are digging ditches this time, but the monotony is broken by a buxom blonde in a simple dress who goes outside of her house to wash her car where the men can see. She makes every effort to entice them, even going so far as ringing out her soapy sponge onto her chest, as they soak in the sight hungrily. Dragline shows himself once again to be the leader by dominating the conversation and naming the woman Lucille. Later that night, some of the men quarrel in the shower, then they are off to bed, with Carl walking the floor, as Dragline whispers the name Lucille in the dark, goading them to remember and want her again. But Luke tells him, “Forget it,” and “Quit beating it in the ground.” Dragline gets angry once again at this new arrival. Tomorrow, they will fight.

In the light of day, the first thing we see is Luke’s head snap back as Dragline lands a hard shot. The two shirtless men have on boxing gloves and are fighting in the small yard. Dragline, who is much larger, is winning easily, but Luke refuses to stay on the ground even though he is being knocked down over and over. At first, the men who have formed a circle around them are cheering Dragline on, but the mood changes as they see that Dragline’s pummeling of this hardheaded man has crossed the line from teaching him a lesson into sheer brutality. The begin to murmur, “Stay down,” but Luke will not. In the end, he is lying in the dirt, badly beaten, but he has taught Dragline the lesson: Luke never gives up, even when he is clearly beaten. 

That evening, the men are playing cards. Unlike the previous time he was offered to join the game, Luke is playing this time, but rather than facing the other players as one normally would, he is turned sideways away from them and not looking at anyone. As the game progresses, Luke raises and calls and raises and calls, until he pushes every other player out of the game. When that happens, Dragline, who is not playing, reaches across table, shows his cards, and declares, “Nothin’. He beat you with nothin’. Just like to today when he kept coming back at me . . . with nothin’.” Smiling, Luke replies without looking at him, “Yeah, sometimes nothin’ is a real cool hand.” He now has his nickname: Cool Hand Luke.

After a brief montage that shows the men working, Luke has a visitor on one of their off-days. He walks through the yard, where men lounge, get haircuts, and jump rope. It is his mother, who is sick but smiling and chain-smoking in a makeshift bed in the covered back of a pickup truck. The first thing Luke says is, “How’d you find me?” Rather than calling her Mother or Mom, he calls her Arletta, and they have an uncomfortable talk as his other family members stand nearby and don’t interact. His mother tells him that his wife has left and brought his things, and their conversation consists mostly of vague references to his behavior, the pain it has caused, and the need for letting go. Arletta tells him that she’ll be dead when he gets out, and we learn that Luke never knew his father. She will be leaving the farm to his brother, and Luke agrees that that’s fair. Arletta tries to explain the strong feelings that she has had for Luke, but his response tells us that it won’t matter much. Once their talk is done, cut off by the guard, Luke exchanges a few words with his nephew. telling him to stay out of trouble, then he is handed his banjo and told that there is no reason for him to come back home again. The scene ends with one of the inmates singing the country gospel song “None But Thee” and playing a twelve-string guitar.

Back out on the road, the cold-hearted guard Honeycutt informs them that they will be tarring a whole road that day. It is clear in the men’s expressions that this is terrible work in the hot sun. They grab the shovels and begin pitching loads of sand onto the new blacktop, and among them Luke is working fast. Dragline tells him to slow down, but Luke takes it as a challenge, making the work into a game and inciting the others to do the same. They begin working at a furious pace, running from sand pile to sand pile, slinging it wildly. The guards are confused by what is going on but don’t stop them. The smiling men keep working and shouting . . . and when the road is paved, there is still daylight! They have completed the awful task that was supposed to drain and demoralize them in less time than expected. Led by Luke, rather than by Dragline who stresses the importance of following the rules, they have defeated the guards who want to break them down. They end the day smiling and laughing as the guards look on.

The next scene in Cool Hand Luke involves one of the most iconic situations in all of movie history. The men are hanging around in the bunkhouse with a drenching rain outside, suffering from the heat, and Dragline is pontificating about how Luke can eat anything. The men are listening when Luke, in his quiet way, says, “I can eat fifty eggs.” Dragline is stopped in his tracks, slack-jawed and dumbfounded, and he replies, “Nobody can eat fifty eggs.” The bet is on! Next, we see Luke jogging and Dragline “training” him, praying, manipulating the rules, anything else he can do to help their chances. Watching Luke eat those eggs is a nauseating thing. In his jockey shorts, he chews and paces as the whole group is held in rapt attention. After thirty-two eggs, Luke looks just about done, but as Dragline talks his talk, it comes out that every last dime in the camp is riding on the bet. Luke smiles and gets back to work: thirty-three . . . Until, finally, Luke downs the last one with Dragline moving his jaw to help him chew. Luke becomes, to his fellow inmates, the man who can do anything. But he is left lying flat on the table, surrounded by egg shells, in a Christ pose as Carl the Floorwalker mumbles, “Nobody can eat fifty eggs . . .”

Although Luke has been on a high for a few scenes, shifting the dour culture of the prison camp to suit his fun-loving attitude, he has a caught the attention of the guards, who don’t like his influence on the other men. In the next scene, the men are working on a roadside and encounter a rattlesnake, which they try to chop with their blades. Luke grabs it by its tail for The Man With No Eyes to shoot, then throws the headless snake carcass at the walking boss’s feet, smiling, and speaks to the silent man as though they were pals, complimenting his shooting and reminding him to get his walking stick. The walking boss is clearly not amused or swayed by this, and Dragline tells Luke later that he has crossed line. Luke, of course, doesn’t care.

Shortly thereafter, a summer thunderstorm appears, and the men quickly shuffle into the trucks. All of them except Luke, who begins to rant at the sky and at God to show him something. Of course he is disappointed and comments, “Just standin’ in the rain.” Again the guards are watching, just as the prisoners are. By this point in the movie, we can see why Luke did not fare well in the military despite being a valiant soldier, why he has ended up in prison for years on a minor violation, why his wife has left, and why his mother left the farm to his brother. Luke is neither lazy, nor stupid, nor shiftless. He is handsome and determined and likable, but he wants answers to the big questions, and his whimsical disdain for the pettiness of regulations and norms angers those in power.

Back in the bunkhouse, Luke receives word that his mother has died. Silently, he retreats to his bunk, facing away from the men and out the window as they walk away to give him space. Luke begin to play a song on his banjo, then sings the tune, picking up speed and volume as he goes. The next day, instead of going out onto the road with the others, he is put in the box and is told that, when men face some tragedy like a mother’s death, they often “get rabbit on their blood” and want to take off for home. He will stay put for a while. The guard who puts him the small, closet-like building tells Luke that he is sorry, but Luke only scoffs at him before he closes the door. Rather than being allowed to work and take his mind off his dead mother, Luke is locked in with his thoughts for days.

Luke is released on the Fourth of July, a holiday even for the chain gang. That evening, as they play loud music, dance, drink beer, and shout, we see Luke down on the floor, sawing his way through and making an escape route. As Carl comes to survey scene at first bell, Dragline distracts him with a dirty book as Luke gets away. The guards may not have noticed Luke had it not been for another inmate who tries to follow too, but does a poor job of it.

The guards put the dogs to the task of chasing Luke through the night and into the next day, but no avail. Luke zigzags over fences, crawls a rope across a stream, and dives off a railroad bridge to confuse the dogs. As the day ends, the car returns to camp without Luke, but with a dead dog carried by the trusty who woefully tells the warden, “He ran poor old Blue to death . . .”

However, Luke won’t be gone long. In the next scene, a car pulls up to the roadside work site and Luke is shuffled up, smiling, to stand on an embankment in front of the other men. As he stands there, leg chains are put on him, and the warden remarks sardonically that he can have the reminder of hearing them clink all the time. Luke responds, “I wish you’d stop being so good to me, cap’n.” The warden’s face changes. he smashes Luke with a blackjack, and proclaims that Luke she never speak to him that away again. Luke then lays on the ground, and the warden gives one of the most famous speeches in movie history: “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. That’s the way he wants it. Well, he gets it!” Then adding, “I don’t like it any more than you men,” he strides away.

Luke returns to work and explains what happened to other men while they eat lunch. He only got about a mile and a half, he tells them, before a policeman caught him driving a stolen car. After the explanation, while Dragline tells him to lay low, Luke is wrapping a string around his finger and staring off into the distance. Back on the roadside, Luke is working, and the guard who attempted to show him kindness while putting him in the box remarks that he has heard that Luke doesn’t believe in God, and that that may explain why a nice young man has ended up in prison. Luke ignores the jibe though, and asks to go relieve himself. Th guard responds that he can, but that he should continue shaking the bush the whole time so they know he’s still there. As Luke moves down the hill, The Man with No Eyes readies himself with his rifle, then begins to shoot warning shots at the bush where Luke is. After three shots and no response, the guard goes and looks— Luke has escaped again! This time, he has tied the string to the bush before running off. The guards go to get the dogs.

Meanwhile, Luke has made his way to a small store where two black boys are outside. He convinces one to get an ax by telling him that he bets he can’t use one. Luke then sends the other boy into the store to get all of the chili powder, pepper, and curry powder he can. After cutting of his leg irons with the ax, Luke showers the dirt with the powder and tells the kids to enjoy the show when those dogs start sniffing all of it up.

Next we see the camp, the men are lying around, and it is mail call. Carl announces that Dragline has mail and  hands him a magazine. Dragline is confused and hands it to another man to see who it’s from: he can’t read. As the men thumb through it, they realize what has been sent. There in the middle is a picture of a smiling Luke with two women, one on each arm! They go crazy with joy.

Later, the men are sitting around again, and one of them Coco, who has been Dragline’s main sidekick, asks to see the magazine in exchange for a cold drink. Dragline takes the deal, and as Coco looks, the door to the bunkhouse opens. Luke is carried in and dropped. The warden declares that he will now wear two sets of legs chains and that there won’t be a third time. The men gather Luke up, but all they want to know is: tell us about the picture! Luke, exhausted and beaten, tells them that it is a fake. No, that’s isn’t possible, they reply, but he yells at them that is. “Stop feedin’ off me,” he growls and wanders back to his bunk.

Back on the job, Luke is given special attention by the guards. He is harassed and badgered, then put in the box at night. The scowling Northerner that the men call Society says that Luke won’t make it, but the men disagree. Eventually Luke does make it through the week, and it looks like he is home-free with a day to rest. But the guards have another idea. Honeycutt stops him and makes him dig a ditch in the yard . . . then another guard makes him fill it in . . . then Honeycutt comes back to make him re-dig it. The weakened Luke tries halfheartedly to fight back, but Honeycutt hits him with a night stick, and Luke begins to dig again . . . then he is told to re-fill it again . . . and that’s where Luke breaks. He begins to beg not to be beaten anymore and concedes in mumbles that he will get his mind right. Through the chain link fence windows, the other men watch him, and when he goes inside, they turn their backs on him. Their hero has been brought low, and when Luke falls, no one helps him up, so he shouts, “Where are you now?”

Out on the road, the guards try to make an example of Luke. He is made to fetch the water bucket for the men, then he is made to fetch the rifle for The Man with No Eyes, then he is made to fetch the turtle he shoots. However, when he is made to carry the turtle to the truck, to be cooked for lunch, Luke’s true colors show. He has used the trips to the trucks to steal all of the keys! He jumps into one dump truck, cranks it up, and drives right through the prisoners and guards, as Dragline jumps in, too. Too late, the guards discover that they are helpless to chase him.

Cool Hand Luke‘s final scenes center on this escape. Dragline is his normal, animated self – perhaps even more so now – and Luke continues to play it cool. Dragline begins to make plans for them to shake up the world, but Luke says no, that he is going by himself. Now, we see how Dragline has become as pitiful and pathetic as he was strong and dominant in the beginning; he has shifted from a leader to a lost follower, asking out loud, “What’m I gon’ do . . . all by myself?” Dragline calls after Luke in the dark as he walks away but the latter man doesn’t even acknowledge his presence.

Luke wanders over to an old clapboard church that is empty. In the silent loneliness, Luke attempts to talk to God in his way. “Hey, Old Man, you home tonight?” he asks. Luke’s monologue then proceeds to blame God for stacking the deck against him, for giving him no chances to do right, but he also accepts his own flawed choices. When he receives no answer out loud, Luke says, “Well, that’s what I thought,” and gives up. Outside we hear trucks drive up then Dragline calls out, “Luke!” The guards have descended on the area and caught Dragline almost immediately. He has made a deal with the officers that, if Luke gives up peacefully, they won’t even beat him. Luke knows better though, despite Dragline’s pleading. He walks, still smiling, to the door, and the many law enforcement officers, guards, and the warden get out of their cars. Luke says, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” right before a bullet strikes him through the heart. The Man with No Eyes has put an end to Cool Hand Luke.

Dragline attempts to comfort Luke, but there is nothing he can do. Luke is taken out to the car, and Dragline freaks out! Wailing, he grabs The Man with No Eyes and wrestles him to the ground, but the other men overtake him. This is not the confident, sneering Dragline who beat Luke so badly in the fistfight, this man lacks direction and is almost helpless. The warden tells the driver to take Luke to the hospital, but the driver protests that it’s an hour away, that Luke will die on the way. He  is overruled, and we know that Luke will die alone. In the movie’s final scene, Dragline is back on the chain gang, telling the men about Luke’s final moments before they all get back to work.

As a document of the American South, Cool Hand Luke depicts the region’s chain gang system as well as the violent intolerance of those in power. Lucas Jackson is a man who lacks worldly ambition, who sees no reason to respect arbitrary rules, and who has no place in a conformist society built on fear and punishment. In a 2008 review of the movie, critic Roger Ebert wrote, “Rarely has an important movie star suffered more, in a film wall-to-wall with physical punishment, psychological cruelty, hopelessness and equal parts of sadism and masochism.” That was the South in the late 1960s. Cool Hand Luke echoed the visuals that Americans had seen in newsreels from places like Birmingham, Alabama earlier in the decade, and that propensity for violence would be further evidenced the next year, 1968, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed.

While I’ll conceded that Hollywood films can have a tendency to portray criminals as heroes and law enforcement officers as villains, this time the portrayal had historical backing. After the Civil War, the South’s notorious convict lease system had partnered with sharecropping to create a new version of slavery in the region, and in 1932, Robert Elliott Burns’ I Was a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang let American readers into this secret world. In both cases, there were real Southerners who executed those system on daily basis. Though they may fictional, the characters and scenario in Cool Hand Luke are not without historical precedent.

Though a person living elsewhere shouldn’t watch Cool Hand Luke and say, “Now I understand the South,” that viewer could acknowledge that he or she had experienced something essential (and ephemeral) about Southern culture: that willingness among authority figures and their enforcers to crush opposition when they view it as a threat. As long as Luke was just an annoyance, playing little games or grinning to himself, he was largely left alone . . . but when the other men began to follow his example, it was time to show all of them who’s in charge.

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