Having had the advantage of reading Donn Pearce's novel about a year before seeing Cool Hand Luke, it was with great anticipation that I awaited it's transfer to the big screen. I was not disappointed.
Cool Hand Luke could easily be classified by the misguided as just a prison yarn, but it is so much more than that. It is the story of a man who refuses to be nailed down or conform to the rules and regulations of a society that he has never craved to fit into. When Lucas Jackson is arrested for cutting heads off parking meters, his explanation to the prison captain(Strother Martin) is "Small Town, not much to do in the evening", which would have us believe he was just being drunk and stupid. Later, to one of the other inmates he mutters the same answer, but importantly adds "just settlin some old scores". It is a brief but important point in helping to define the character of Luke beyond just being drunk and damaging public property. As a service man, we also discover that Luke won a bronze star, achieved the rank of sergeant but came out as a private. Again, early evidence that Luke is unable to conform to any body's rules but his own. Yet, we are given clear evidence that Luke knows what is right in principal and what is wrong. At one point in the film when they are putting Luke in the box under less than reasonable circumstances, he tells the boss, "calling it your job don't make it right, Boss." In a visit from his mother Arletta(Jo Van Fleet), Luke says plenty about his own character by telling her, "A man's got to go his own way" or as he also puts it, "I tried to live always free and above board like you but I can't seem to find no elbow room".
As Luke enters the prison that will supposedly be his home for the next two years, we meet the other inmates. Some of them wear chains, some of them do not. It is a point early in the film that director Stuart Rosenberg, emphasizes. We understand quickly that sooner or later you conform. You either walk the line the way the bosses tell you to, or they will find the means to get you to walk the line. As the Captain reiterates, "for your own good, you'll learn the rules" A point driven home often.
What we discover about their crimes is minuscule. One is jailed for manslaughter after hitting a pedestrian with his car, another is a paper hanger, another new inmate is charged with breaking, entering and assault. The nature of their crimes is unimportant to us. It enables to view these prisoners as men, and while we don't feel any genuine sympathy for them, feeling disgusted by their crimes would have been a distraction from the true purpose of Pearce's story, and Luke as the focal point.
Because of his individuality, it doesn't take Luke long before he unexpectedly becomes a hero to the other inmates. It is not a role he chooses, or even wants. It unexpectedly imposes the burden on him of having to live up to the expectations of others. He never truly understands the nature of this hero worship, and would be just as happy if he didn't have to deal with it. He is still trying to find his way in the world, and if there is any real purpose for his existence.
Another principal character is Dragline(George Kennedy). It is he who finally establishes the fact that Cool Hand Luke is a man who can not be beaten. Dragline's admiration for Luke seems to extend from the fact that he(Dragline)has learned the rules on how to get by, but yet regrets having lost some of his own individuality in the process. He is the rest of the inmates in microcosm. I can't remember a role that George Kennedy has ever been better in, and he deservedly won the best supporting actor award.
Cool Hand Luke is not without it's humorous moments especially in the early going. It is these moments that help move the film from the early stages to the darker more despairing later stages. Perhaps, for that reason alone we are even more effected by Luke's dilemma.
In translating his novel to the screen Donn Pearce along with Frank Pierson, has managed to bring the heart and soul of his nove to the big screen. Lalo Shifrin's memorable score emphasizes often the repeated drudgery of working on the chain gang. Director Stuart Rosenberg made more good films after Cool Hand Luke, but in my opinion never achieved the same degree of perfection that he does here.
As Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman give one of the most memorable performances in a long distinguished career. It is not an easy task portraying a man who travels the road from being a sincere individualist, to a man who may be beaten and defeated, yet in the end is still unwilling to accept that fate. Although Rod Steiger won the best actor award that year, one could argue that Newman's role was more difficult, as it required substantially different subtle ranges in character. As for the failure of Cool Hand Luke to achieve a Best Picture nomination, I'm at a loss to explain that malfunction, especially when the likes of Doctor Doolittle and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, far lesser efforts than this were nominated.
Cool Hand Luke is a true classic in every sense of the word. It is a film that will long be remembered.
My grade: A+