Cool Hand Luke is a masterpiece of American cinema that proves that even a film with a big star and a stereotype prison setting can have enough intellectual material to hold its own against the most hallowed art house pictures made in Europe. Its is a strange statement to make but somehow Hollywood is a victim of its own success and it artistry is sadly unsung compared to its great capacity to entertain.For every Bergman, Fellini and Goddard, Hollywood has a Ford, Kubrick and Altman. I recently watched John Fords The Searchers again and was stunned by the audacity of his filmmaking and the depth of the drama.
Cool Hand Luke is a maddening film to watch, I asked myself what is the point of this film several times while watching it.There was never a dull moment but the action had a way of repeating itself with variations several times.It did provide subtle clues about its agenda and by the time it was over I was in little doubt that I had watched a deeply theological film that uses the story of Jesus to make its point. Undoubtedly believers and non believers will take away very different things from the film just as an unadorned story of Jesus’ life evokes very different reactions.
Consider for a moment the twin films, The Gospel According to St. Matthew and Theorema, both by the staunch communist, atheist, poet and master agent provocateur, Pier Paolo Pasolini.The Gospal According to St. Matthew was made after Pasolini read the Bible, cover to cover, in a hotel room in Rome.He had been invited by the Pope, as a part of a dialogue between the church and atheists.Pasolini made the film about an amazing life in neo-realistic style and it is one of the finest films ever made.He followed it up with Theorema a much more complex and challenging film which retold the story of Jesus from a atheist point of view.Cool Hand Luke is a worthy addition to that interesting list of films that use a Christ like figure as its protagonist. India’s contribution is the brilliant Malayalam film Esthappan(1980), by G.Aravindan.
Paul Newman plays Luke, a much decorated war hero who is in self-destructive mode and wants a stage to make a show of it.He gets arrested and is sent to prison for two years.It is like any prison in the movies but this one is especially full of losers and its keepers are men whose brain has been addled by watching over men that nobody cares about anymore. In one grueling sequence after another he punishes himself, the sight of the improbably handsome Newman torturing himself is stomach churning at times.Consider his boxing match with a fellow prisoner called Dragline(George Kennedy) who is much larger than him.We expect Newman to deliver a knockout punch at some point. But he keeps getting knocked down and refuses to stay down.He gets up innumerable times to be punched brutally until his opponent gives up.From that point Newman has become a mascot for the prisoners who gawk at his ability to take punishment and do stuff that they are scared to do.
In an inspired sequence he takes a bet that he can eat 50 boiled eggs and by the time he is finished he is lying on the table with his legs crossed and arms stretched out, in a horizontal approximation of crucification.Many scenes involve the prisoners as part of a chain gang working under the blazing southern sun, hacking away at weeds or tarring a road that nobody takes.During one of these ordeals we see a voluptuous girl clad in a flimsy dress, washing a car in a suggestive way.This is clearly a temptation scene and Luke does get tempted just like any other man in the gang.When he runs away, his running is only to make the others realize how easy it is for them to do the same.There is no twist in the tale like Shawshank Redemption, Luke’ life is a living challenge to God.
The political subtext of the film is equally potent and Luke as a broken and abused war veteran is a powerful anti-war symbol.Perhaps he is punishing himself for killing innocent people abroad as a soldier, perhaps his actions are symptoms of a nasty form of PTSD.
The film shot by Conrad Hall is immaculately crafted, he brings home the grimness of the situation with great skill and consistency.All the performances are great, including that of a young Dennis Hopper who does not have a single line but stands out in the crowd.At the heart of the film of course is Newman’s performance and presence.His beautiful face with those piercing blue eyes and a chiseled body maximize the impact of the masochism.
One of the most quoted pieces of dialogue in film history,“What have here, is a failure to communicate” which is spoken by two characters in two very different situations, is a great summation of this film.Its is this breakdown of communication and the absence of its positive outcomes that lead to most of the problems in the world, whether it is an imperfect understanding of religion, cultures or ideologies.Cool Hand Luke is a film that has become a classic because beneath its busy and infuriating surface it has a lot to say.