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  • Michael Ballard

Cool Hand Luke (1967): The Price of Individual Freedom


Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) is doing time on a chain gang for "maliciously destroying municipal property while under the influence." While on a bender he was caught cutting the heads off of parking meters. His excuse for vandalizing the defenseless meters: “Well, you know how it is. Small town. Not much to do in the evening. Mostly was just settling old scores.”


Luke appears to be a laid back fellow. A decorated war hero, he shrugs off his citations, claiming he was just passing time while in the military. He tries to keep to himself, and yet he can’t seem to stay out of trouble. Confrontation follows him wherever he goes.


First, his fellow inmates try to make him conform to their ways. When Luke manages to win their respect without having to cave, he becomes a hero in their eyes. That triggers apprehension on the part of the warden (called the “Captain”) and his prison bosses. Fearing Luke might be a threat to their authority, they set out to break him.


Memorable performances

Paul Newman is the very definition of a star. His presence gives our reluctant hero charisma and turns what could have been a remote and aloof character into someone we can root for. With a fine cast of supporting players--including George Kennedy (who won the Academy Award for best performance by an actor in a supporting role), Strother Martin as the Captain, a seething, soft-spoken martinet, and Jo Van Fleet, in one sobering scene as Luke's mother--the film brims with humor, tension, and pathos.


Unforgettable scenes

From a titillating car wash to a hilarious egg eating challenge and a punishing boxing match, director Stuart Rosenburg and editor Sam O'Steen have put together one memorable scene after another in this entertaining and well-constructed story about society’s relentless--you might say vindictive--need to crack down on the individual (screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson, based on a novel by Pearce).


Defining an era

There is a line from the film that captured the political zeitgeist of the 1960s (it's on the cover of the DVD I own): "What we got here is...failure to communicate." The line, spoken by the Captain, was an ironic commentary intended to expose an intractable society that had no inclination to communicate with anyone. For the “Establishment”, in those days an epithet applied to figures of authority and anyone who upheld a faulty and corrupt status quo, “communication” meant, "We talk. You listen and obey."


While there’s no denying the insight of a cogent phrase that cuts to the shady heart of political duplicity, I always found myself drawn to another line from the film, equally penetrating, that speaks to a deeper, human truth. That line is spoken by Luke himself. After winning a big poker hand on a bluff--beating everyone, essentially, with “nothing”--Luke gives one of his patented smiles and says, “Yeah, well, sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand.”


When you live as if you have nothing to lose, everything is possible. However, in a world that demands conformity and blind obedience, any attempt to maintain your individual freedom will never come easy. There's always a price to pay.