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Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke

By Ben Nicholson • July 23rd, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
Warner Bros.

Original release: November 1st, 1967
Running time: 126 minutes

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writers: Frank Pierson, Donn Pearce (novel)

Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy

Cool Hand Luke

A car drives away down a long deserted road and in the final scene Dragline, tells his comrades of their friend’s adventures. Before the film even ends, the central character has become a legend, someone who can be held up by others; admired, revered, remembered and whose will and courage can be an example to all those who lack their own.

As the credits rolled during my most recent viewing of Stuart Rosenberg’s classic film Cool Hand Luke, it struck me for the first time how littered with religious symbology and metaphor the film is. Whether or not this is due to a very specific desire on the part of the writers or the director, or whether it’s just the fact that the story of Jesus is a compelling yarn, it’s interesting to consider what these parallels end up meaning for an audience.

The film sees the title character, Luke (Paul Newman), arriving in a low security prison for drunkenly damaging municipal property. After rubbing up the head-prisoner Dragline (George Kennedy) the wrong way, and fighting him in a boxing match, the two become good friends and Luke begins to take on a heroic mantle within the prison. He wins at cards through a bluff, he inspires the chain-gang to stick one to the Bosses by working doubly hard, and thus finishing while there are still a couple of hours of daylight left, and most importantly – he refuses to be kept down and breaks out of the prison on multiple occasions.

There are a vast number of religiously iconic moments in the film even though the story of Luke is most certainly not a linear match for that of Jesus. The most obvious of these moments are after Luke famously takes a bet that he can eat 50 boiled eggs.

Cool Hand Luke

After the challenge he lies alone on the table with his arms out in the shape of Jesus on the cross. There are various other visual cues – the picture in the end is torn like the cross for instance – as well as the diegetic music played by Luke and Tramp (Harry Dean Stanton) on the banjo nearly all having religious overtones. The inmates look up to Luke and follow him as people did Jesus, and when he hits a low point and is brutalised and broken by the Bosses the other men turn their backs, leaving him asking where they all are now. It’s easy to see Dragline represents Peter and is even commissioned by Luke to continue his work after he’s gone:

“I done enough world shaking for a while, you do the rest of it for me.”

On top of that we have Luke speaking to God – asking what it’s all about – describing him as ‘Old Man’. What’s of real interest is in trying to decide what these parallels mean. Was it the intention of the writers or director to re-imagine the story of Jesus in order to modernise it and bring it to a mass audience? Did they just happen to use the story as a basis for their own? Is this a version of events meant to try to view the story of Jesus in a different way?

This is probably seen differently depending on the viewer. Luke is a social outcast. Despite being the son that his mother loved – at the expense of an estranged brother – he has never been able to find himself a place in the world. Cool Hand LukeThat he has a problem with authority is very clear from the beginning; having no real respect for Dragline’s position as the top inmate or for the Bosses, and when he’s recaptured after his lengthiest escape we learn he sees the outside world as just the same – full of bosses.

Luke speaks to God on a number of occasions, mostly due to tiring of a life in which he feels he doesn’t belong. As the film draws to a close and he finds himself in a church, he’s not asking why God has forsaken him and left him alone, but he’s confused that he’s never fit anywhere. Even when all of the inmates looked up to him he could not get comfortable. Personally, I think Cool Hand Luke in fact looks at the creation of a symbol and used Jesus as the ultimate basis for this.

Luke, and how he goes about his life, becomes a symbol for those men in the prison. He’s a typical tragic hero – going back a lot further than the life of Jesus – in that fate conspires against him. He can never know true happiness, but in the creation of a legend and a symbol the filmmakers have clearly used the birth of Christianity as their starting point.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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