Had this weird thing as a kid when I watched movies, often with my dad, who only watched action or western movies then, less so today: I mixed up films and actors, would get halfway through a story thinking it was something it wasn’t, or that the lead actor wasn’t who I thought he was. Specifically, in the mid-seventies, I had a spell of thinking that Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were the same person. I think it was because they were both in The Towering Inferno, acting in alternating scenes. They seemed like two versions of the same hero, so my latency aged mind conjoined them. My dad enthused about their filmographies, would reference films like Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid or The Great Escape. I thought I was watching the latter when I came upon a film about a guy who keeps breaking out of prison and smirking at “bosses” every time he does so.
At some point I learned through my father that the film we were watching together wasn’t The Great Escape with Steve McQueen, but rather Cool Hand Luke, starring McQueen’s less blond doppelganger, Paul Newman. No, neither I nor my father used words like doppelganger back then (he still doesn’t), but here’s an example of temporal revision, which this essay, and not any of the films mentioned so far, were providing at the time I first viewed them. In some ways, CHL will have been an early and influential introduction to all things linked to the American South, which would become distinct in my mind from the American West. Set in I-don’t-know-exactly-where, the film is richly inflected with twangy, Appalachian accents, backgrounded with stretches of mountainless plains bathed in scorching humidity; an air of good-ole-boy jocularity underlined with the cruelty, racism, and misogyny of uneducated men. Into this mix, the story thrusts Lucas Jackson, an impish, youthful (though Newman will have been in his forties when filming) post-adolescent who has lost his way. Apparently a war hero (WWII?) and therefore a once-establishment lackey (or so we’re meant to infer), ole Lukey boy is caught one night performing the relatively inoffensive act of tearing the heads off parking meters while drinking whiskey (probably—another southern cliché I will have noted), and is then sentenced to a couple of years in a rural penitentiary for damaging municipal property. Listless, indifferent, yet clearly disdainful of rules and “the man”, he seems like the kind of figure who ought to have caught a greyhound and headed west, to somewhere like San Francisco to hang out with hippies; to “drop out” with the likes of Timothy Leary.
But it seems that Luke is less committed to freedom as he is to rebellion, and the difference is crucial, as one path leads individuals towards escapism and the open road while the other keeps someone ever in touch of authority, often with a thumb perched on the tip of one’s nose. At first, Luke plays it cool in one sense, merely observing all the rules he will later break on both sides of the prison divide. The “bosses” or the “Cap’n” (the chief warden) aren’t his principal antagonists at the outset of his incarceration. Initially, his problem is his peer group, and most notably, a top-dog illiterate named “Drag” played by George Kennedy, who seemed like a poor man’s John Wayne in most of the films I saw him in. Anyway, Luke first pokes this bear with his attitude, incurring a predictable slap-down in the form of a mismatched round of boxing. However, Drag is impressed with Luke’s plucky never-say-die resilience, and later by his sneaking poise as Luke schools everyone at poker, hence earning his nickname. At some point, Luke comes to represent something other than crude thumb-on-the-nose impertinence, but instead something closer to inspired mischief. He embodies a new hope, a new way of beating the man, and before long, what we got here is not just a failure of communication (yes, I remembered the line), but an allegory of messianic purpose and dilemma in the fraught, disparate sixties, set in America’s most wounded underbelly.
As Luke slyly wins over his mates, he gets under the nose of authority by playing with rather than breaking its rules and hierarchical norms. Wicked smart, he observes that he can win his peers a 2-hour break from laying sand over tar by exhorting them to work harder. With his freakish, non-weighting gaining appetite, he can win for some a bounty of cash by consuming fifty eggs in an hour. In moments like this, he is a rock star, accepting all manful dares, bringing everyone together, aroused by the drama of the one pleasure prison allows them: gambling. Before long, Luke is the coolest kid in class/camp, but like countless other heroes (especially sixties anti-heroes), he soon gets bored with his followers and the false auspicious luster they bestow. At a mid-point of the film, during a scene wherein the heavens have opened, interrupting another prison work day, the ordinarily laconic Luke breaks into a soliloquy that rails against the injustice of God. He’s not complaining about the rain. Come and get me, Luke says, as if bored by life.
His blasphemy arouses the ire of the prison staff if not so much his fellow inmates, so the remainder of the film shifts the action to Luke’s battle with guards and the warden. Here is where his real gamble begins, though amidst the action, we learn about the source of his weak-spot: his mother. Revealed as a crusty, chain-smoking, dying figure, Luke’s mom visits him in prison, sat in the back of a truck, clearly disabled, informing her son that she’s not long for this world. At this point, amid allusions to a once absent, drunken and now-deceased father, plus an upbringing of abuse that now seems hackneyed in such stories, Luke is shruggingly offhand, steeped in the mischievous persona he is busy cultivating in the present. That all changes when he learns of her death and slumps off to play the banjo on his bunk, weeping. Thereafter, he stops being a mischievous rule-breaker and more the escape artist, though he retains his prankish talent. His best example is the “shake the tree” ruse he pulls over a guard’s eyes as he walks away to urinate, only to then abscond. Twice Luke is brought back to the camp, handcuffed and beaten, or sent to an isolation box to cool off what the Cap’n dubs his “rabbit” feet. He’s actually sent to this penalty box prior to his first escape, ostensibly to deter an escapist temptation following his mother’s death. Luke takes off anyway, not so must in protest of the Cap’n’s injustice but in his determination to always do the unexpected.
After the second escape and return, Luke is sternly warned that his next escape will be his last. Cementing their need to “make his mind right”, the Cap’n and guards turn the screws, forcing Luke to perform impossible chores, follow absurdist rules, looking to break him. Inevitably, this tactic succeeds, and as Luke lies in a ditch he’s been forced to dig, appealing to God to save him from his torment, the guards, themselves pious despite their repertoire of evil (God simply means authority here), mock Luke’s desperate longing, which culminates in his abasement. With his fellow inmates looking on, Luke clutches at the feet of the most bullying of guards, and as he sobs, his peers drop their heads, demoralized by the defeat and indignity of their hero. Jesus has fallen. When Luke is finally brought back to them and his relatively comfortable bunk, they abandon him, disgusted by his surrender. “Where are you now?” he cries and flails, as if calling for some lost object. This is his primal, unconscious appeal for an absent father or mother. But there’s nary a nurturing woman, or man, in sight. During the film’s waning scenes, Luke is seen to be servile with the guards, performing errands at their command; adhering to their rightful authority; being right in his mind. This, however, is his climactic ruse, as Luke then turns the tables once more, cleverly stealing a guard’s truck, as well as pilfering the keys to those that might chase him.
In this last escape, he is joined by Drag, who perceives the trick just as Luke is playing it, so he grabs onto the fleeing truck, happy to cede his once top-dog persona, now fully enamored of the true king of the prison camp. With a final flourish, Luke exhibits his mischievous air once more, though in its last bow this act of Luke seems weary and foreboding. He knows he’s in for it: he’s made his choice to recapture his “cool” persona; to enact the hypermasculine, I-don’t-need-anyone-way, so as to give his lonely, hero-worshiping peers something to hang onto and hope for. A sacrifice. Not wanting to drag Drag down with him, he orders the once top dog and now puppyship fellow to get lost, essentially. Thus, feeling doomed, Luke wanders away from his admirer towards a church, for a final soliloquy and conversation with the one authority towards whom he retains some curiosity, if not reverence. Now, with a tired smirk once again replacing former sobs of desperation, he somewhat humbly yet calmly asks for some guidance and love from the Lord. But none is forthcoming. Minutes later, the Cap’n and guards show up and surround the church, having just captured Drag, whom they send into the church so as to guide Luke out peacefully. However, Luke is not buying the cynical overture, the latest ruse of the man, so he steps towards a window, opens it and calls out into the wind and rain, “what we got here is a failure to communicate”.
Bang. As Luke speaks his last mocking word he is shot in the neck, and is soon pictured smiling as he dies in the back seat of a police car. His shooter is a man known as “the man with no eyes”, because he always sports sunglasses—an element which contains an interestingly subliminal theme. This silent as in no-dialogue-but-always looming figure is the one who takes revenge upon the willful, mischievous Luke—perhaps at the behest of the virulent Cap’n—but just as likely because of his own hateful impulse, which itself disguises a guilt-ridden past, we may consider. I must research the source material of Cool Hand Luke, and perhaps give it a read, for what I imagine here is an Oedipal play transported to the white surface of the Jim Crow South. A silent, absent, blind, and abusive father figure gazes suspiciously, enviously at the desire of the other, at the freedom-seeking life of the young man; at the way that young man has become the favorite of others, and of the shared wife/mother in particular. He, the son, will get his someday, thinks the man.