The Enduring Truth of Cool Hand Luke

Written October 4, 2008

Paul Newman used to be my favourite actor.  It’s not that anyone replaced him in that role, but probably that he belongs to that period of my life when I categorized actors in that way.  Newman’s recent death got me thinking about films of his, where I saw them and what else was going on in my life at the time.  There’s no doubt that the movie of his that resonates most with me is Cool Hand Luke. For some reason, it took me years to actually see the whole movie.  I would always catch bits and pieces of it on television.  In those days before video stores allowed easy access to whatever older film you wanted to watch, you were at the mercy of late night television programming.  The first time I think I saw the film in its entirety was when I showed it to my grade twelve students in an attempt to make clear the idea of an anti-hero. I’ve since learned that Cool Hand Luke is one of the only older films I know that will hold the attention of all levels of high school students.  This particular grade twelve class contained some of the most apathetic students I’d ever known; they were averse to writing, reading and any kind of formal discussion.  Most films only served as an ocassion for them to sleep for longer periods without chance of an interruption.  So I was impressed with the fact that they were riveted to what for them was a relic, a black and white film about a non-confomist who is sent to work on a chain gang in the southern U.S. and ends up transforming the other convicts because of his refusal to play by anyone’s rules other than his own.  The film contains no special effects of the kind they are used to and none of the epic action sequences that are standard fare for today’s youth.  Still, the class was absolutely taken in by Newman’s portrayal of Luke; they particularly loved the scene in which Luke eats fifty hard boiled eggs in one hour to win a bet promoted by Luke’s character foil Dragline, memorably played by George Kennedy.  Looking back on it, I suppose their identification with Newman’s character really isn’t that much of a stretch.  They were watching an individual who was restricted in his personal freedom and who had to put up with a myriad of rules and excessive consequences for breaking them.  Sound like high school?  That Luke kept his personal integrity and refused to be intimidated by physical force or peer pressure made him a figure of interest to my students.

It’s possible that my students were subconsciously responding to the movie’s religious symbolism and they were compelled to admire and cheer for the martyr figure who attempts to save the souls of his fellows.  I didn’t dare try to engage them in a conversation on that level for fear of a complete shutdown and a backlash against the whole experience.  What’s interesting is that my estimation of the film was enhanced by their seal of approval.  I felt that if the film could hold their interest and quite obviously engage their affection, it had to possess something universal and timeless about it.  Rather ironic that a film whose most iconic and oft-quoted line is “What we have here is failure to communicate” was able to communicate so well to this group of young people who had given up on the education system years ago and were merely putting in time.  I’m still not sure what exactly captivated them about this film; there are hosts of anti-hero films, some of superb quality like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but none that I know of that can engage students like Cool Hand Luke.  But in watching the film with successive classes, one scene captured my attention beyond all others.  It occurs after Newman’s character Luke is caught for a second time after a failed escape attempt.  While on the lam, Luke had sent the boys a glossy picture of him sandwiched between two gorgeous women at a bar.  The picture quickly gains legendary status in the bunks and George Kennedy’s character Dragline even goes so far as to charge the other convicts cash for a chance to look at the photo.  So when Luke is caught, the moment his body is thrown into the bunkhouse, the convicts descend upon him for the scoop about the women in the picture.  Luke startles them when he growls:  “Stop feeding off me.”  He goes on to tell the convicts that the picture was a fake, that it cost him a week’s pay and that he really didn’t accomplish anything during his escape.  The men can’t believe it.  They won’t let go of their illusion.  Dragline says at one point:  “I seen it with my own two eyes.”  For me, in the year 2008, that’s the brilliance of the film right there.  Our need for a good story, regardless of whether it’s true or not.  Our insistence that our heroes conform to our vision of them even when it leads to their destruction.  Our living through the experiences of others.  Our stubborn refusal to face the truth.  Our tendency to be conned by visuals.  Our belief that outside our routine is an exciting, glamorous world just waiting for us to enter.  How fitting that the last image of Luke in the film is the taped up picture of him at the bar.

The lesson wasn’t lost on Newman.  He didn’t move to Hollywood, divorce seven times and get lost in a prison of self-interest.  In my mind, Luke and Newman merge into one trying to breathe amidst the public’s incessant need for an unreal hero.  Like Luke, Newman managed to avoid being pigeon holed by an adoring public and managed to play by his own rules.  I don’t know what lesson I’ll get from the film when I watch it next, but I’m confident that it will be something significant about the difficulty of maintaining your individuality among humans.

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