There’s a reason why Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a classic. Lots of reasons, actually. Another Paul Newman anti-hero role, another film so perfectly indicative of the time in which it was made.
Let’s get right to the plot.
It’s Florida, circa 1950. We meet our anti-hero, Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), right away.
He’s drunkenly cutting the heads off parking meters in a small town that, we can infer, doesn’t have much going on.
Quick side note on Paul’s attire in this scene: socks with loafers is legitimately awesome. At least when Paul Newman does it. Also, note the beer bottle opener that Luke wears in this scene and throughout the film. Another instance of real-life Paul Newman style working its way into one of his onscreen characters.
Luke Goes to Prison. And Meets the Captain.
Luke soon gets caught by the police, and is sentenced two years in prison. The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.
When Luke arrives at the prison, which seems to be in a Southern middle-of-no-where, he meets the captain of the prison (Strother Martin). The Captain knows right away that Luke is different.
And will probably be trouble.
Luke soon meets the other inmates and learns all the prison rules. The take away from the prison rules: basically, if you do anything at all, the Captain and his henchmen can arbitrarily decide to make you spend a night (or several) in “the box.” The box is just what it sounds like–a small box structure barely big enough for a man to stand in, where inmates are sent to spend time in solitary. We’re hoping Luke won’t ever have to spend time in the box. But we also kind of know he will.
The other inmates initially don’t like Luke, mostly because he’s the new guy. But also because Luke stands out—he says smart-alec things to the prison floorwalkers, and sticks up for new inmates when they get hazed by Dragline (George Kennedy), the alpha inmate. Luke stands by his sense of justice and (moral?) convictions, even when the smart thing to do is to just be quiet, or let something slide.
Like Paul Newman himself, Luke is a tenacious character.
The inmates’ view of Luke begins to change after Dragline, a huge, bear of a man, challenges Luke to a fight, and Luke, half his size, accepts. It’s a touching scene, watching Luke get knocked to the ground by this giant man again and again. But somehow Luke always finds the strength to get back up and keeping fighting.
It’s certainly in Luke’s best interest to just stay on the ground after Dragline’s powerful punches. The other inmates, and even Dragline himself, plea with Luke to just stop getting up, to stop trying. But he won’t.
“Stay down, you’re beat!”
Says Dragline. But Luke responds,
“You’re gonna have to kill me.”
A Real Cool Hand
Eventually, Dragline walks away from the fight, leaving Luke the last man standing. Luke wins the fight, and the respect and admiration of the other inmates.
After the triumphant fight, Luke wins an inmate poker game with a truly terrible hand.
This cements Luke’s nickname, which Dragline, who’s become a bit of a fanboy, coins:
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“Nothin’. A handful of nothin’. He [Luke] beat you with nothin’. Just like today when he kept comin’ back at me, with nothin’.
Luke famously responds:
“Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
Cool Hand Luke: The Turning Point
Cool Hand Luke has now gained the respect of the inmates, and even some of the prison floorwalkers. (The egg eating scene!)
But after Luke gets word that his mother died, and the Captain decides to give Luke some time in the box—just in case he’s tempted to run away for her funeral—we sense that Luke’s unbreakable spirit and rebellious streak are about to be put to some self-destructive uses.
Captain shouldn’t have put him in the box.
Luke Attempts to Break Free
The rest of the film centers around Luke’s multiple attempts to escape prison. He escapes a total of three times, and each time freedom is short-lived. When caught after his second attempt, Luke is told that if he tries to escape again, he will be killed. Enter the infamous line,
“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,”
said by the Captain before he dishes out Luke’s punishment.
By Luke’s second failed prison escape, we kind of hope that he will just call it quits, serve his two years without resistance, and be done with it.
But we also admire Luke’s inability to accept that path. (Anti-hero, remember?)
Cool Hand Luke: One Last Try
Luke’s spirit is temporarily broken after his second escape, and it looks like he may just accept the easy, non-resistant path.
But…once out on the chain gang again, Luke has an opportunity to steal a truck and make a getaway. And he takes it.
This time Dragline joins him. After they’ve escaped a fair distance, Luke says they should separate. Dragline reluctantly agrees—he doesn’t really know what to do without Luke—and Dragline is soon caught.
Luke, still free, finds himself inside a church and touchingly tries to talk with God:
Anybody here? Hey, Ol’ Man, You home tonight?…about time we had a little talk…I know I got no call to ask for much, but even so, You’ve gotta admit, You ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginnin’ to look like You got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all of ’em rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell Ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end? What do Ya got in mind for me? What do I do now? I guess I’m pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. I guess I gotta find my own way.
Before long, the church is surrounded. The Captain and his henchmen are outside. They send in Dragline to try to convince Luke that if he comes out without a fight, they won’t kill him.
Triumph in Death
Luke is shot in the neck.
The Captain then tells his driver to take Luke the long way to the prison hospital, ensuring that Luke won’t survive the drive.
Somehow, Luke’s death is a tragic victory. Maybe because he’s smiling as he dies, maybe because he died staying true to himself, never giving up on his beliefs, never taking the path of least resistance.
We see his life and death have inspired the other inmates, particularly Dragline, to be their own men, to think for themselves and to stand for something. As Dragline tells the other inmates at the film’s close:
He was smiling…That’s right. You know, that, that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn’t know it ‘fore, they could tell right then that they weren’t a-gonna beat him. That old Luke smile. Old Luke, he was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he’s a natural-born world-shaker.
A world shaker indeed. And with that, the film ends.
Cool Hand Luke: From Book to Screenplay
Written by Donn Pearce, Cool Hand Luke was first a novel, based on Pearce’s own life and experiences.
And Pearce led quite a life.
Pearce was a merchant seaman before becoming a counterfeiter and safecracker. Cool Hand Luke was all about Pearce’s time working on a chain gang during his own imprisonment after getting caught. Indeed, Donn Pearce was a character with some interesting stories to tell.
Pearce was hired by Jack Lemmon’s company, Jalem Productions, to write a screenplay, which Jalem planned to make into a film, with Jack Lemmon himself in the title role.
But smart guy that he was, Jack knew he wasn’t right for the part. So while the screenplay was fleshed out, Jalem Productions looked for the perfect actor to play Cool Hand Luke Jackson.
Paul Newman is Cool Hand Luke
They didn’t have to look long.
Paul Newman had read the book, and was immediately interested in playing “Cool Hand” Luke Jackson. Paul was so enthusiastic, he agreed to the role without even seeing a finished script.
As Newman recounted,
“It’s one of the few roles I committed myself to on the basis of the original book, without seeing a script. It would have worked no matter how many mistakes were made.”
The casting of Paul Newman was considered near perfect to everyone involved with Cool Hand Luke. Everyone that is, except Donn Pearce.
Pearce thought Newman completely wrong for the role.
As recently as 2011, Pearce said:
“They did a lousy job and I disliked it intensely. [Newman] was so cute looking. He was too scrawny. He wouldn’t have lasted five minutes on the road.”
Pearce, hired to consult on the film and play a bit role, was a poor sport throughout filming. So much so that he was uninvited to the premiere of Cool Hand Luke after punching a guy on set the last day of filming. So perhaps his negativity towards Newman and the film is a little biased.
Regardless, the public and the Academy disagreed with Donn Pearce.
Following its October 1967 release, Cool Hand Luke grossed over $16 million in the US, and garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, in a year of stiff competition. (Paul was up against Spencer Tracy, Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, and Rod Steiger. Steiger took home the Oscar for In the Heat of the Night.)
No, Paul Newman Did Not Really Eat 50 Eggs
The famous egg scene, in which Luke bets another inmate that he can eat 50 eggs in an hour, was one instance in which Paul Newman did not go the Method acting route of experiencing what you act. Newman insisted in an interview that for the filming of that scene:
“I never swallowed an egg.”
The reporter conducting the interview then teased him with another question:
“Isn’t Method acting about doing the real thing?”
To which Newman responded:
“Not if you have to swallow eggs.”
George Kennedy, who won Best Supporting Actor for his work as Dragline in the film, remembered that Paul consumed about eight eggs while filming the scene. And as soon as director Stuart Rosenberg yelled “cut,” Paul immediately sought out the nearest garbage can to vomit in.
Who can blame him. Eight eggs is more than enough.
Paul Newman Did His Own Banjo Playing
After Luke learns of his mother’s death, he mourns by singing “Plastic Jesus” while playing the banjo. It’s a touching scene that Paul Newman knew would be more effective if he were actually playing the banjo in it. But the problem, as George Kennedy humorously put it, was that:
“Paul knew as much about the banjo as I do about baking cakes.”
After a few arguments, Paul convinced director Stuart Rosenberg to film the scene at the end of the shooting schedule. This gave Paul as much time as possible to learn how to play banjo from Harry Dean Stanton, who played fellow inmate “Tramp” in the film.
When the day to film the scene came, in George Kennedy’s words:
“…in the scene you see, Paul makes an error. He wasn’t doing it the way he wanted and became madder and madder, although you can only tell by the increase of the pace of his stroking the banjo. When it was over, it was magnificent. Rosenberg said, ‘Print.’ Paul said, ‘I could do it better.’ And Rosenberg said, ‘Nobody could do it better.’”
Paul Newman may have disagreed, but director Rosenberg was right: Newman is perfect in the scene. And no one could have done it better.
That's it for Cool Hand Luke
That’s it for Cool Hand Luke and our month with Paul Newman [aff. link].
Join me next as I introduce our June Star of the Month, Jane Powell.