Paul Newman is at his best in this classic from 1967. From the opening scene it is easy to tell that Luke does not have the proper “attitude” about the State and its “bosses.” The movie does not fully explain if Luke had any specific purpose in decapitating the parking meters in his town, the “criminal act” for which he is sent to a prison work farm and chain gang, but that was quite an anti-statist act of rebellion.
Cool Hand Luke is based on a novel of the same name by Donn Pearce, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie. It is directed by Stuart Rosenberg. The cast is magnificent with small early roles for many actors (just a sampling: Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, Wayne Rogers) who went on to become much larger names in movies or television.
George Kennedy is Dragline, the leader of the prisoners before Luke arrives. He and Luke do not start on the best of terms. However after a boxing match, in which Luke refuses to concede, and a poker game which gives him his name ("cool hand"), Dragline and Luke become the best of friends.
Luke’s mother Arletta is played by Jo Van Fleet who may be one of the finest actresses to have ever graced the silver screen. This is a small role for her compared to Ella Garth in Elia Kazan’s Wild River, or Kate in Kazan’s East of Eden. Nevertheless, as usual she shines in the small but important role.
Luke confounds the “bosses” by finding ways of having “something to do,” such as eating 50 eggs in an hour. When Arletta dies the “Captain” (Strother Martin) decides that Luke might be thinking of escaping to attend her funeral so he puts Luke “in the box.” The guard who puts Luke in the box tells him “I’m jes’ doin’ my job.” Luke’s indictment of the “bosses” for the injustice is simple and eloquent when he replies “Callin’ it your job, don’ make it right, boss.”
The prison farm in this movie is not a pleasant and easy life, but it seems like a picnic compared to the earlier I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang with Paul Muni or the more recent Papillon with Steve McQueen.
Like both Muni’s and McQueen’s characters Luke manages to escape but is shortly recaptured. He is rewarded with leg irons which hinder his next escape attempt, but he manages it and stays away for longer the second time. However, he is returned again to the prison farm after another capture and severe beating.
There are many symbolisms in this movie and the comparison of Luke to Christ is often made. Many people might prefer the ending in the more recent prison movie The Shawshank Redemption. However, all these prison movies lay the State and its system of “justice” bare and show the cruelty and injustice that is at work.
If you are a person that occasionally has "problems with authority and authority figures" then Cool Hand Luke may be a good movie for you. Don’t miss it.