50 Years Later: Where Is Today’s ‘Cool Hand Luke’?

No matter where you are in the world, someone or something is probably trying to keep you controlled, making sure you don’t step out of line. Whether it’s a parent or spouse laying down the house rules, a neighborhood association imposing property regulations, a state enacting laws that dictate everything down to the amount of soda you can sell in one cup, or a society, in general, enforcing its own standards of behavior, we’re all beholden, all restricted, all pressured to conform. Disobedience can result in strict punishment, both physical and material; the grip tightens to prevent us from breaking free. Authority relies on the potential of loss as a deterrent, but what if someone had nothing to lose in the game of life? Now that would be a real cool hand, and the results could be heroic in a way rarely seen these days.

It may be a product of its time, but 1967’s Cool Hand Luke will always be relevant in its depiction of individual resistance, and it’s the kind we could use more of. Luke Jackson is not the sort of quippy non-conformist seen nowadays in countless snarky movie protagonists, nor is he the sort of hipster used as role models in TV commercials that want you to express yourself with the same product that everyone else does — the kind for whom sassy comments qualifies as rebelliousness, aloofness hides genuine sensitivity, and a casual disregard for fashion norms qualifies as “outrageous.” No, these predictable idiots are as establishment as it gets, a safe form of venting that threatens nothing and leaves everyone still feeling comfortably nested in the system. Luke, however, represents a true danger to the cling of authority. His open defiance constantly challenges those who would shackle him, be that prison guards or his own cellmates’ class system, sending them scrambling to deal with a force they do not understand.

The southern chain gang prison “Cool Hand” Luke (as he is later dubbed by his colleagues) is sentenced to for two years functions like its own miniature society, with a pecking order of power that starts at the top and trickles down. There is obvious hierarchy in the administration in charge of the rest of the minions, wielding weapons and the dreaded “box” — a small enclosure that allows for little room to move — as incentive to remain docile sheep, but the prisoners themselves also have an established order, as well as their own set of social rules that lock a man up. The warden, Captain, and Walking Boss Godfrey (the dreaded man in sunglasses) are undeniable overlords, but at night in the hot barracks, free from supervision, the barrel-chested Dragline reigns supreme, accepted leader of the convicts. As the newcomer, Luke is expected to know his place and adhere to it, bowing his head to even more control, even more restriction.

In almost all things big and small, from stubbornly refusing to lay down in a boxing match he is severely losing, to rejecting his own bodily limits by eating fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour, Luke takes on all comers, desperate to avoid capitulation in any way, shape, or form. While everyone around him carries on in obedience to whatever higher power they serve, Luke won’t even cow to the highest, openly daring God and the Universe to try to break him. Some audiences may see this as obnoxious, prideful, foolhardy, impractical, irresponsible, and any number of negative ways, but Luke is also something they are not,  something they may be jealous of. He is supremely free, and ultimately that makes him likable. Humankind has always cheered for an underdog taking on the establishment, breaking out of the prison most are born into. Mythology and religion are full of such examples (Cool Hand Luke plays off of Christian imagery especially), and these obstinate characters are almost always regarded as heroic.

While the current cinematic landscape is littered with a sea of ostensibly brave men and women serving as idealistic examples for the rest of us, very few of these paragons are distinguishable from each other by anything other than the colors of their super spandex. From noble patriots who champion democracy to petty thieves with hearts of gold, this collection of freakishly overpowered warriors stand for pretty much the same values, the same character traits, and the same philosophy when it comes to the obeying the rules: rebellion is okay — but only to a point. Despite supposedly representing individual empowerment, Captain America, Batman, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, and all the rest ultimately fight for the collective control of society, what they consider “justice,” defying the establishment only when they selfishly see fit (their extraordinary physical abilities apparently gives them moral superiority as well), but holding the rest of the “normal” population (i.e, us) accountable to it. Luke demands no accountability from anyone, and in return simply asks the same treatment.

Luke’s attitude is understandably frightening at first to those entrenched in obedience, but also stimulating to those who see in him their own power and potential. Through his incessant assault on governance of any kind — be it finding a “work faster” loophole that allows his fellow roadwork crew mates to enjoy a beautiful evening free of hard labor, or devising multiple clever escape attempts — he shows dead men what life is like. What could be more admirable than that? Yet the untamed example Cool Hand Luke showcases is rarely emulated in movies anymore. While grappling with morally gray areas has practically become a required superpower for modern protagonists (a clear reflection of our own times), their internal struggles stay safely within the confines of acceptable societal norms. They tend to debate between established points of view, and often actually end up taking a side, joining a team, fitting in. Luke steps outside that comfort zone, venturing where few truly have gone before: to his own side, one independent of the pressures of a collective.

That he ultimately fails in revolution is of little consequence; humans have always had a complex relationship with heroes, cheering them one moment, booing the next. Everyone loves when ideals are exerted by direct action, as long as it’s ideals they agree with. Buildings may be blown up, city blocks might be razed to ruin, entire cities could be pounded to pieces by hulking green personifications of anger; when we’re for the cause, we tend to have little problem with tasking the powerful to regain control by any means necessary. Cool Hand Luke eschews the physical destruction for an attack on those institutions that act on our behalf, tasking people instead with regaining control of themselves. What we now think of as non-conformity and rebellion bears little resemblance to the real deal that’s on display here, and it’s a subversion that frankly we could use more of.

Though there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a Herculean man of steel do battle against our outward enemies, there is room for characters that take on vaster, more pervasive opponents. More than snark, a deep down resistance is a more practical superpower, one born more from verve than sarcasm. Cool Hand Luke is an inspiring look at the struggle we all face from every aspect of restriction within the world we inhabit. It reminds us that we are the heroes — and masters — of our own lives; no radioactive spider bites required.

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Mike Worby December 1, 2017 at 9:34 pm

Fantastic write-up. I finally watched this movie last year for the first time, and I have to say you have profoundly nailed the strengths of the film.

Patrick December 2, 2017 at 2:52 pm

Thanks! I’m glad you’ve seen it, as too many these days seem to know Paul Newman only as the guy who makes salad dressing. I didn’t go into how great he is in this role, those blue eyes and that winning smile perfectly cast in order to warm audiences to a stubborn, sometimes frustrating character. Man, I love this movie. If I can’t be Indiana Jones, then I want to be Luke.

Patrick December 2, 2017 at 2:53 pm

Minus the hard-boiled eggs. Can’t stand ’em, no way I’m eating 5, let alone 50.


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