Length: 126 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 1, 1967
Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg
Stars: 4 out of 5
Plenty of people have had a night of drunken debauchery, where they do things they either don’t remember or will wake up the next morning to regret. In the case of Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), the drunkenness led to the destruction of several parking meters, a crime for which he is caught and arrested. He is hauled off to jail, which sets up the rich, emotional story at the heart of “Cool Hand Luke.”
Luke is sentenced to hard labor in a chain gang, which is a bit excessive for the crime he committed. Sure, he was guilty of the crime, there is no doubt about that, but a chain gang was usually reserved for hardened criminals with much more serious crimes to their credit. Nonetheless, Luke joins the gang and begins working out in the hot Florida sun, which is oppressive in its own right. There, he meets a fairly motley crew of characters, including Captain (Strother Martin), who is very interested in the fact that Luke served in the military during the Korean War. His record shows that he made it all the way to the rank of Sergeant, but was demoted several times and left the military with the rank of Private. This shows a certain disdain for authority that someone like Captain, who is in charge of the chain gang, doesn’t like.
Luke is automatically painted as a troublemaker, a title that nobody in a chain gang wants. It isn’t just authority figures like Captain that he has issues with, though. Dragline (George Kennedy, in an Oscar-winning performance) is the head honcho among the prisoners, a point that Luke fails to acknowledge. In doing so, he makes enemies and finds himself in a boxing match with Dragline, who can’t help but respect the plucky newcomer for his willfulness and spirit. Luke soon wins Dragline and the rest of the boys over, becoming a hero in their eyes.
He is anything but a hero to Captain and the underlings who help him run the prison camp. The Captain sets out to break Luke’s spirit, and nearly succeeds one night when he puts Luke in “the box,” which is the camp’s version of solitary confinement. He does so because Luke’s mother has died, and Captain believes Luke will try to escape for her funeral. This makes Luke more determined than ever to escape, which he does, several times. Each time he is recaptured, his punishments and beatings become progressively crueler. They are so hard that it makes the audience wonder if the authorities might just succeed in breaking him.
Newman received an Oscar nomination for his work in the film, though he would ultimately lose to Rod Steiger, who won for “In the Heat of the Night.” Nobody will deny Steiger his Oscar, but Newman’s take on Luke was the performance of a lifetime. His take on the classic antihero character was as refreshing as it was impactful. In fact, several actors and screenwriters in subsequent years have said that the film, and particularly Newman’s performance, influenced them, making this something of a landmark film.
“Cool Hand Luke” is very much a product of its time, having been made in the 1960s. The 60s are famous for being a time of great change in society, particularly in the United States. Movies about people who were at odds with those changes, or society in general, were not only common, they were downright popular. Films about rebels were also a big deal back then, which makes Luke a character that audiences of the time really wanted to get behind.
One of the best things about the film is that even though it’s a product of its time, “Cool Hand Luke” still resonates with audiences years later. A story about someone bucking the system and trying his hardest not to let his spirit be broken is a fairly universal theme that fits nicely into just about any decade. In fact, the film is considered so influential that the National Film Preservation Board added it to the National Film Registry in 2005, citing it as a work of art that is culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.
Due to the fact that it has been honored as a part of the National Film Registry, many people who were born well after 1967 have sought the film out to see what the fuss is about. What this new generation of viewers got was a fantastic story with bravura performances from some fairly legendary actors. Luke Jackson may not be the movie world’s first antihero, but he sure had a hand in taking antiheroes to the next level. For that reason alone, “Cool Hand Luke” is worth watching. However, new viewers should be prepared for a film that is more than the sum of its parts, and which may leave them emotionally exhausted afterwards, much like Luke himself.