Cool Hand Luke
|Cool Hand Luke|
Theatrical release poster by Bill Gold
|Directed by||Stuart Rosenberg|
|Produced by||Gordon Carroll|
|Based on||Cool Hand Luke|
by Donn Pearce
|Music by||Lalo Schifrin|
|Edited by||Sam O'Steen|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.-Seven Arts|
|Box office||$16.2 million|
Cool Hand Luke is a 1967 American prison drama film directed by Stuart Rosenberg, starring Paul Newman and featuring George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning performance. Newman stars in the title role as Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp who refuses to submit to the system.
The film, set in the early 1960s, is based on Donn Pearce's 1965 novel of the same name. Pearce sold the story to Warner Bros., who then hired him to write the script. Due to Pearce's lack of film experience, the studio added Frank Pierson to rework the screenplay. Newman's biographer Marie Edelman Borden states that the "tough, honest" script drew together threads from earlier movies, especially Hombre, Newman's earlier film of 1967. The film has been cited by Roger Ebert as an anti-establishment film which was shot during the time of emerging popular opposition to the Vietnam War. Newman's character, Lucas Jackson, is described (by the notorious "Captain," upon his arrival at the prison), as a "free spirit," whose personal record (read out loud because of its unusual details) indicates a man who started well in the US Army—receiving medals for bravery in Korea—rose to the rank of Sergeant, yet was discharged as a "buck" Private.
Luke doesn't question his physical incarceration, and initially has no thought of escape. But his spirit is not, like that of his fellow inmates, imprisoned. This free thinking is, from the outset, noticed by the institution, its functionaries (the guards), and especially its leaders. Their response is a mixture of both fear and loathing. So they retaliate against Luke through "physical punishment, psychological cruelty, hopelessness and equal parts of sadism and masochism." His influence on his prison mates and the torture that he endures is compared to that of Jesus, and Christian symbolism is used throughout the film, culminating in a photograph superimposed over crossroads at the end of the film in comparison to the crucifixion. Filming took place within California's San Joaquin River Delta region; the set, imitating a prison farm in the Deep South, was based on photographs and measurements made by a crew sent to Road Prison in Gainesville, Florida by the filmmakers.
Upon its release, Cool Hand Luke received favorable reviews and became a box-office success. The film cemented Newman's status as one of the era's top box-office actors, while the film was described as the "touchstone of an era." Newman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, George Kennedy won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Pearce and Pierson were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the score by Lalo Schifrin was also nominated for the Best Original Score. In 2005, the United States Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, considering it to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." It has a 100% rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The quotation used by the prison warden (Strother Martin) in the film, which begins with "What we've got here is failure to communicate," was listed at No. 11 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most memorable movie lines.
Decorated war veteran Lucas "Luke" Jackson (Paul Newman), is arrested for cutting parking meters off their poles one drunken night. He is sentenced to two years in prison and sent to a Florida chain gang prison run by a stern warden, the Captain (Strother Martin), and a stoic rifleman, Walking Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward), whose eyes are always covered by a pair of mirrored sunglasses. Carr (Clifton James) the floorwalker, tells the rules to the new set of prisoners, with any violations resulting in spending the night in "the box," a small square room with limited air and very little room to move.
Luke refuses to observe the established pecking order among the prisoners and quickly runs afoul of the prisoners' leader, Dragline (George Kennedy). When the pair have a boxing match, the prisoners and guards watch with interest. Although Luke is severely outmatched by his larger opponent, he refuses to acquiesce. Eventually, Dragline refuses to continue the fight. Luke's tenacity earns the prisoners' respect and draws the attention of the guards. Later, Luke wins a poker game by bluffing with a hand worth nothing. Luke comments that "sometimes, nothing can be a real cool hand", prompting Dragline to nickname him "Cool Hand Luke".
After a visit from his sick mother, Arletta (Jo Van Fleet), Luke becomes more optimistic about his situation. He continually confronts the Captain and the guards, and his sense of humor and independence prove to be both contagious and inspiring to the other prisoners. Luke's struggle for supremacy peaks when he leads a work crew in a seemingly impossible but successful effort to complete a road-paving job in less than one day. The other prisoners start to idolize him after he makes and wins a spur-of-the moment bet that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour.
One day, Luke picks up a deadly rattlesnake from the grassy ditch and holds it up for Boss Godfrey to shoot with his rifle. Luke tosses the snake to the boss as a joke, before he hands him his walking cane. Dragline advises Luke to be more careful about his actions pertaining to the "man with no eyes." A rainstorm causes everyone to prematurely end their work. Before he joins the other prisoners in the truck, Luke shouts to God, testing him. On that same evening, Luke receives a letter stating that his mother has died.
The Captain, anticipating that Luke might attempt to escape in order to attend his mother's funeral, has him locked in the box. After being released from the box, receiving word that his mother's burial is completed and being told to forget about her, Luke is determined to escape. Under the cover of a Fourth of July celebration, he makes his initial escape attempt. He is later recaptured by local police and returned to the chain gang, but not before one of the three bloodhounds sent after him dies from heat and overexertion, including the strain of repeatedly going under the wire fences, in his attempt to trail Luke. After his capture and return, the Captain has Luke fitted with leg-irons and delivers a warning speech to the other inmates, explaining, "What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. And I don't like it any more than you men."
A short time later, Luke escapes again by using string to shake a bush and deceive the guards about his location while taking a urination break behind said bush, afterwards visiting a nearby house where he uses an axe to remove his shackles. To keep the guard dogs from following his scent, he spreads curry powder and chili powder across the ground to send them into sneezing fits and overload their sensitive sense of smell. While free, Luke mails Dragline a magazine that includes a photograph of him with two beautiful women. He is soon recaptured, beaten, returned to the prison camp, and fitted with two sets of leg irons. Luke is warned by the Captain that if he ever attempts to escape again, he will be killed on the spot. Luke is now annoyed by the other prisoners fawning over the magazine photo and reveals it to be a fake. At first, the other prisoners are angry, but after a long stay in the box, when Luke is punished by being forced to eat a massive serving of rice, they come to help him finish it.
As further punishment for his escape, he is forced to repeatedly dig a grave-sized hole in the prison camp yard, fill it back in, and then be beaten. The prisoners observe his persecution, singing spirituals. Finally, as the other prisoners watch from the windows of the bunkhouse, an exhausted Luke collapses in the hole, begging God for mercy and pleads with the bosses not to hit him again. Believing Luke is finally broken, the Captain stops the punishment. Boss Paul warns Luke that he will be killed if ever he runs away again, which Luke promises in tears not to do. The prisoners begin to lose their idealized image of Luke, and one tears up the photograph of Luke with the women.
Seemingly broken, and again working on the chain gang, Luke stops working to give water to a prisoner. Watched by the disappointed prisoners, he runs to one of the trucks to take Boss Godfrey's rifle to him. After Boss Godfrey shoots a snapping turtle, Luke retrieves it from a slough for him, complimenting the boss for his shot. Luke takes one last stab at freedom when he is ordered to take the turtle to the truck. He steals the dump truck, as well as the keys to the other trucks. In the excitement of the moment, Dragline jumps in the dump truck and joins Luke in his escape. Later, after abandoning the truck, Luke tells Dragline that they should part ways. Dragline reluctantly agrees and leaves. Luke enters a church, where he talks to God and blames Him for sabotaging him so he cannot win in life. Moments later, police cars arrive. Dragline walks in and tells Luke that the police and bosses have promised not to hurt Luke if he surrenders peacefully. But instead of submitting, Luke opens a window facing the police and mocks the Captain by repeating the first part of his speech ("What we've got here is a failure to communicate."). He is immediately shot in the neck by Boss Godfrey. Dragline carries Luke outside and surrenders, but suddenly charges at Boss Godfrey and strangles him until he is beaten and subdued by the other guards. While Luke is loaded into the Captain's car, Dragline tearfully implores him to live. Against the protests of the local police, the Captain decides to take Luke to the distant prison infirmary instead of the local hospital, ensuring that he will not survive the trip. As the Captain's car drives away, a semi-conscious Luke weakly smiles while the tires crush Boss Godfrey's glasses. After Luke's implied death, Dragline and the other prisoners fondly reminisce about him. In the final scene, the prison crew is seen working near a rural intersection close to where Luke was shot. Dragline is now wearing leg irons, and there is a new Walking Boss. As the camera zooms out, the torn photograph of Luke grinning with the two women has been taped back together and is superimposed on a bird's eye view of the cross-shaped road junction.
- Paul Newman as Lucas "Luke" Jackson
- George Kennedy as Dragline
- Strother Martin as the Captain
- Jo Van Fleet as Luke's mother, Arletta
- Joy Harmon as the Girl (Lucille)
- Morgan Woodward as Boss Godfrey
- Luke Askew as Boss Paul
- Robert Donner as Boss Shorty
- Clifton James as Carr
- John McLiam as Boss Keen
- Andre Trottier as Boss Popler
- Charles Tyner as Boss Higgins
- J.D. Cannon as Society Red
- Lou Antonio as Koko
- Robert Drivas as Loudmouth Steve
- Marc Cavell as Rabbitt
- Richard Davalos as Blind Dick
- Warren Finnerty as Tattoo
- Dennis Hopper as Babalugats
- Wayne Rogers as Gambler
- Harry Dean Stanton as Tramp (credited as "Dean Stanton")
- Ralph Waite as Alibi
- Anthony Zerbe as Dog Boy
- Buck Kartalian as Dynamite
- Joe Don Baker as Fixer (uncredited)
Pearce, a merchant seaman who later became a counterfeiter and safe cracker, wrote the novel Cool Hand Luke, about his experiences working on a chain gang while serving in a Florida prison. He sold the story to Warner Bros. for US$80,000 and received another US$15,000 to write the screenplay. After working in television for over a decade, Rosenberg chose it to make it his directorial debut in cinema. He took the idea to Jalem Productions, owned by Jack Lemmon. Since Pearce had no experience writing screenplays, his draft was reworked by Frank Pierson. Conrad Hall was hired as the cinematographer, while Paul Newman's brother, Arthur, was hired as the unit production manager. Newman's biographer Marie Edelman Borden states that the "tough, honest" script drew together threads from earlier movies, especially Hombre, Newman's earlier film of 1967. Director Stuart Rosenberg altered the original ending in the script, adding "an upbeat ending that would reprise the protagonist's (and Paul Newman's) trademark smile."
Paul Newman's character, Luke, is a decorated war veteran who is sentenced to serve two years in a Florida rural prison. He constantly defies the authorities of the facility, becoming a leader among the prisoners, as well as escaping multiple times. While the script was being developed, the leading role was initially considered for Jack Lemmon or Telly Savalas. Newman asked to play the leading role after hearing about the project. In order to develop his character, he traveled to West Virginia, where he recorded local accents and surveyed people's behavior. George Kennedy turned in an Academy Award-winning performance as the leader of the prisoners, Dragline, who fights Luke, and comes to respect him. During the nomination process, worried about the box office success of Camelot and Bonnie and Clyde, Kennedy invested US$5,000 in trade advertising to promote himself. Kennedy later stated that thanks to the award his salary was "multiplied by ten the minute (he) won," also adding "the happiest part was that I didn't have to play only villains anymore."
Strother Martin, known for his appearances in westerns, was cast as the Captain, a prison warden who is depicted as a cruel and insensitive leader, severely punishing Luke for his escapes. The role of Luke's dying mother, Arletta, who visits him in prison, was passed to Jo Van Fleet after it was rejected by Bette Davis. Morgan Woodward was cast as Boss Godfrey, a laconic, cruel and remorseless prison officer who Woodward described as a "walking Mephistopheles." He was dubbed "the man with no eyes" by the inmates for his mirrored sunglasses. The blonde Joy Harmon was cast for the scene where she teases the prisoners in washing her car after her manager, Leon Lance, contacted the producers. She auditioned in front of Rosenberg and Newman wearing a bikini, without speaking.
Filming took place on the San Joaquin River Delta. The set, imitating a southern prison farm, was built in Stockton, California. The filmmakers sent a crew to Tavares Road Prison in Tavares, Florida, where Pearce had served his time, to take photographs and measurements. The structures that were built in Stockton included barracks, a mess hall, the warden's quarters, a guard shack and dog kennels. The trees on the set were decorated with spanish moss that the producers took to the area. The construction soon attracted the attention of a county building inspector who confused it with migrant worker housing and ordered it "condemned for code violations." The opening scene where Newman cuts the parking meters was filmed in Lodi, California. Meanwhile, the scene in which Luke is chased by bloodhounds and other exteriors were shot in Jacksonville, Florida, at Callahan Road Prison. Luke was played by a stunt actor, using dogs from the Florida Department of Corrections.
Rosenberg wanted the cast to internalize life on a chain gang and banned the presence of wives on set. After Joy Harmon arrived on location, she remained for two days in her hotel room, and wasn't seen by the rest of the cast until shooting commenced. Despite the director's intentions, the scene was ultimately filmed separately. Rosenberg instructed an unaware Harmon of the different movements and expressions he wanted. Originally planned to be shot in half a day, Harmon's scene took three. For the part of the scene featuring the chain gang, Rosenberg substituted a teenage cheerleader, who wore an overcoat.
The Academy Award nominated original score was composed by Lalo Schifrin, who created tunes with a background in popular music and jazz. While some of the tracks include the use of guitars, banjos and harmonicas, others include trumpets, violins, flutes and piano.
An edited version of the musical cue from the Tar Sequence (where the inmates are energetically paving the road) has been used for years as the theme music for local television stations' news programs around the world, mostly those owned and operated by ABC in the United States. Although the music was written for the film, it became more familiar for its association with television news, in part because its staccato melody resembles the sound of a telegraph.
Pierson included in his draft explicit religious symbolism. The film contains several elements based on Christian themes, including the concept of Luke as a Saint who wins over the crowds and is ultimately sacrificed. Newman's character of Luke is portrayed as a "Jesus-like redeemer figure." After winning the egg-eating bet, Luke lies exhausted on the table in the position of Jesus as depicted on his crucifixion, hands outstretched, feet folded over each other. After learning about the death of his mother, Luke sings "Plastic Jesus." Greg Garrett also compares Luke to Jesus, in that like Jesus, he was not physically threatening to society because of his actions, and like Jesus' crucifixion, his punishment was "out of all proportion."
Luke challenges God during the rainstorm on the road, telling him to do anything to him. Later, while he is digging and filling trenches and confronted by the guards, an inmate performs the spiritual "No Grave Gonna Keep my Body Down." Toward the end of the film, Luke speaks to God, evoking the conversation between God and Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane, depicted in the Gospel of Luke. Following Luke's talk, the film depicts Dragline as a Judas, who delivers Luke to the authorities, trying to convince him to surrender. In the final scene, Dragline eulogizes Luke. He explains that despite Luke's death, his actions succeeded in defeating the system. The closing shot shows inmates working on crossroads from far above, such that the intersection is in the shape of the cross. Superimposed on this is the repaired photo Luke took during his second escape, the distinct creases of which also form the shape of the cross.
Use of traffic signs and signals
Different traffic signs are used throughout the film, complementing the actions of the characters during the scenes. At the beginning, while Luke cuts the heads off the parking meters, the word "Violation" appears. Stop signs are also seen. Instances include the road-paving scene and the last scene, where the road meets at a cross section. Traffic lights turn from green to red in the background at the time Luke is arrested, while at the end, when he is fatally wounded, a green light in the background turns to red.
"Failure to communicate"
- What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. And I don't like it any more than you men.
After writing the line, Pierson worried that the phrase was too complex for the warden. To explain its origin, he created a backstory that was included in the stage directions. Pierson explained that in order to advance in the Florida prison system, officers had to take criminology and penology courses at the state university, showing how the warden might know such words. Strother Martin later clarified that he felt the line was the kind that his character would very likely have heard or read from some "pointy-headed intellectuals" who had begun to infiltrate his character's world under the general rubric of a new, enlightened approach to incarceration. Some authors believe that the quotation was a metaphor for the ongoing Vietnam War conflict which was taking place during the filming, and others have applied it towards corporations and even teenagers. The quotation was listed at number 11 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most memorable movie lines.
Zero Mostel paraphrases the line in The Great Bank Robbery (1969). When Strother Martin hosted Saturday Night Live on April 19, 1980, he played the strict owner of a language camp for children, parodying his Cool Hand Luke role. He paraphrased his line from the movie as, "What we have here is failure to communicate BI-LINGUALLY!" An audio sample of the line is included in the Guns N' Roses songs "Civil War" and "Madagascar."
Release and reception
Cool Hand Luke opened on November 1, 1967 at Loew's State Theatre in New York City. The proceeds of the premiere went to charities. The film became a box-office success, grossing US$16,217,773 in domestic screenings. Kennedy won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Newman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, while Pearce and Pierson were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and Schiffrin was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Score.
Variety described Newman's performance as "excellent," noting the supporting cast as "versatile and competent." The New York Times praised the film, remarking that Pearce and Pierson's "sharp script," Rosenberg's "ruthlessly realistic and plausible" staging and direction and Newman's "splendid" performance with an "unfaultable" cast, "elevates" it among other prison films.
The review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a score of 100% based on reviews by 47 critics, and an average of 8.8/10. Its critical consensus states, "Though hampered by Stuart Rosenberg's direction, Cool Hand Luke is held aloft by a stellar script and one of Paul Newman's most indelible performances." Empire rated it five stars out of five, declaring the movie one of Newman's best performances. Slant rated the film three stars out of four. It described Newman's role as "iconic," also praising its cinematography and sound score. Allmovie praised Newman's performance as "one of the most indelible anti-authoritarian heroes in movie history."
Critic Roger Ebert included the film in his review collection The Great Movies, rating it four stars out of four. Ebert stated that it was a "great" film and also an anti-establishment one during the time of the Vietnam War. He believed that the film was a product of its time and that no major film company would be interested in producing a film of such "physical punishment, psychological cruelty, hopelessness and equal parts of sadism and masochism" today. He praised the cinematography, capturing the "punishing heat" of the location, and stated that "the physical presence of Paul Newman is the reason this movie works: The smile, the innocent blue eyes, the lack of strutting," which no other actor could have produced as effectively.
Contrary to the general consensus, Newman's biographer Lawrence J. Quirk thought that it was one of Newman's weaker performances, stating "For once, even Newman's famed charisma fails him, for in Cool Hand Luke he completely lacks the charm that, say, Al Pacino in Scarecrow effortlessly exhibits when he plays a screw-up who also winds up (briefly) incarcerated." However, Quirk added that Newman's performance was stronger in the second half and said that "to be fair to Newman, he was trying his damnedest to play an impossible part, since Luke is a convict's rationalization fantasy and never a real character." Some authors have criticized the film's depiction of prison life at the time. In a review entitled "Sheer Beauty in the Wrong Place," Life, while praising the film's photography, criticized the influence of the visual styles in the depictions of the prison camp. The magazine declared that the landscapes turned it into "a rest camp (in which) the men are getting plenty of sleep, food and healthy outdoor exercise," that despite the presence of the guards showed that there were "worse ways to pay one's debt with society." Ron Clooney also remarked that prisons "were not hotels and certainly not the stuff of Cool Hand Luke movies."
In 2003, AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes & Villains rated Luke as the 30th greatest hero in American cinema, and three years later, AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers: America's Most Inspiring Movies rated Cool Hand Luke number 71. In 2006, Luke was ranked 53rd in Empire magazine's "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters." The movie solidified Newman's status as a box-office star, while the film is considered a touchstone of the era. The film was an inductee of the 2005 National Film Registry list.
The book was adapted into a West End play by Emma Reeves. It opened at London's Aldwych Theatre starring Marc Warren, but closed after less than two months, following poor reviews. The show was chosen by The Times both as "Critic's Choice" and "What the Critics Would Pay To See."
An episode of the television show The Dukes of Hazzard entitled "Cool Hands Luke and Bo" was shown with Morgan Woodward playing "Colonel Cassius Claiborne" the boss of a neighboring county and warden of its prison farm. He wears the trademark shades of Boss Godfrey throughout the episode.
In the 1993 baseball film The Sandlot, the lines of dialogue from Cool Hand Luke's car wash scene, "She don't know what she's doing!" "She knows exactly what she's doing," are repeated verbatim. The dialogue is featured with a familiar backdrop: In Cool Hand Luke, a leggy blonde washes a car while the men look on lustily; in the scene in The Sandlot, a leggy blonde applies sunblock while young boys look on admiringly.
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