Relatable characters are one of the main ingredients for any movie to work on an audience, and the more flawed they are is a plus. Some of the portrayels are so iconic that we can’t imagine anyone else playing them. There is no Taxi Driver (1976) without Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle,or (for contemporary audiences) no Pirates of the Carribean if Jack Sparrow is not played by Johnny Depp. Both of the forementioned characters (and countless others) are in totally different situations (let alone genres), but we relate to them because of their flaws. In short, they are anti-heroes.
This brings us to Cool Hand Luke Jackson, which is a role that is forever immortalized by screen legend Paul Newman. Set in the South, the film starts off in the middle of the night, with Luke (Newman) under the influence and cutting the heads off of parking meters. There is no real reason he has behind this. Sentenced to two years, he is then transferred to the local outdoor chain gang, where prisoners call all in authority “Captain”. Any rule broken (whether minor or major) is going to make you “spend a night in the box”.
Luke is one of fifty prisoners, the leader of which is Dragline (George Kennedy, who won the film its only Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). One of the key scenes of the film (among many of them) is the boxing match between Dragline and Luke. Dragline is so overpowering that Luke is not so much an underdog as he is dead meat. Yet still, he keeps getting back up, despite being knocked down. This is when we realize this is one film character we will not soon forget.
That is key to Luke’s character, as he is one who never gives in to conforming. The bible verse this reminded me of was the first part of Romans 12:2. “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”. In many ways, Luke is the Christ character of the film. He has a bunch of friends who look to him for guidance and encouragement (such as when they are to tar the road). He is abused (the whole sequence of digging a hole is torture for anyone). There is even an image of him lying as if on a cross after the ever popular egg eating scene (if there were ever a movie to teach you about eating eggs, it is this film). As stated before, he is far from perfect (he is in jail, after all), but there are a good amount of ideals that the fellow prisoners strive for, and we the audience join them.
Not too much is revealed of Luke’s past, despite finding out he was a war veteran. We do get a visit from his dying mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet), the only family Luke really has. When we find out her fate, there is a scene of just two minutes of Luke’s reaction that shows some of the best acting of Newman’s long career. It is painfully electric.
There is one scene that parents should be wary of and that is the car wash scene. In it, the gang is working on the road nearby a house, where a local young woman is washing a car in very loose clothing. Nothing explicit is seen, but the scene does last five minutes or so.
The film was released during the Vietnam War, during which more people were trying to stand up to authority. It was easily a film of its time. Now, over five decades later, it still speaks to us. In a very poetic way, it can be said that Cool Hand Luke has never had “failure to communicate” with audiences of any era.
You can catch Cool Hand Luke on Netflix.