Nominated for four Oscars and the winner of one, Cool Hand Luke is an anti-establishment tale of triumph of spirit set in a Florida Prison Camp. Highly decorated but jaded war veteran Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) is sent to prison for two years after drunkenly destroying parking meters. Life inside the camp is tough but Luke endears himself to his fellow inmates thanks to his ‘never give up’ spirit and lust for life. Following a couple of failed escape attempts though the prison guards come down hard on Luke and life inside begins to take its toll.
I’d never heard of this film before a couple of weeks ago when a friend recommended it and subsequently lent it to me. Grateful as I am, had I never seen it I don’t think I would have been too bothered. For me Cool Hand Luke is a decent prison movie but nothing more. I rarely found the conditions or treatment of Luke to be overly harsh until one scene mid way through and apart from the gruelling work, life inside the jail didn’t seem that bad. What the movie gets across though is a spirit of refusal to give up or bow down which not only sits well with the 1960s period in which it was made and set but also continues to work well today.
Paul Newman delivers a fine performance as Luke. He is effortlessly cool and his character seems to never stop or admit defeat. George Kennedy is also quite good as prison top dog but I was surprised to see that he won an Oscar for his performance. The large ensemble cast is without exception very good and there are a couple of familiar faces who got my attention. Dennis Hopper plays a strange character and Paris, Texas’ Harry Dean Stanton also appears though his role is small. Strother Martin was good as the prison Captain and Morgan Woodward and Robert Donner made excellent prison guards. Joy Harmon also appears in a memorable and excellently directed scene.
The direction on the whole was very good especially as the movie was Director Stuart Rosenberg’s first major studio film. I thought that he captured the heat and tough nature of the road work and I enjoyed the multiple shots reflected in sunglasses. Some of the set pieces were also very good. The fifty hard boiled eggs scene was quite funny at times but also demonstrated the character’s refusal to be beaten. While I don’t think that Cool Hand Luke is in any way a bad film, I think that there are plenty of better, similar films. Papillon is better at showing the tough prison setting and also deals well with the futility but refusal to accept defeat aspect of the plot. Sleepers is also excellent for showing the brutality and cruelty of prison life and The Hurricane deals with the refusal to accept defeat. So although Cool Hand Luke may join those films as good prison movies, it isn’t in my opinion close to being the best of them. There are some great performances and a solid theme but the film didn’t really do anything for me.
- The famous line "What we got here is failure to communicate" is heard earlier in the film with an added "a".
- Luke's prison number '37' is a reference to Luke 37:1 "For with God nothing shall be impossible"
- For the road tarring sequence, the actors actually tarred a mile stretch of road for the County.