The Laws of God, The Laws of Man:

Power, Authority, and Influence in ‘‘Cool Hand Luke’’



            Movies set in prisons usually dramatize ways in which crime does not pay and cri­mi­nals do.[1]  Beyond that public service, prison-set­tings afford film-makers ample range to jux­ta­pose life inside insti­tutions with life outside.[2]  Such films can haunt film-goers if society's crimes against cinematic outlaws parallel society's treatment of every­day innocents or if sinned-against too greatly resemble sinners.

            In this essay, I consider one such haunting film, Cool Hand Luke.[3]  Cool Hand Luke overtly contrasts prisoners with imprisoners to the detriment of the latter if not the glory of the former.  Beyond that contrast, so famil­iar that it long ago lost its irony, Cool Hand Luke exposes an ‘‘economy’’ of communica­tion by which repression is rationalized and conformity justified to create walls figurative and political within which film-watchers are interned and interred.  An obvious message of this Sixties classic is that we should distrust all whose talk of justice accessorizes their powerful impulse to punish.[4]  A subtler message of the film concerns crimes that ‘‘madmen in authority’’[5] commit every day and the glory and the folly of those who resist and demystify those crimes.




            The straightforward story-line of Cool Hand Luke encourages cursory interpretation.  Lucas Jackson, imprisoned for a petty violation, impresses members of his chain-gang by resisting the brutish convict ‘‘Drag­line.’’  Once he has proved his mettle, he becomes ‘‘Cool Hand Luke,’’ an inmate who can out-work, out-eat, and out-blas­pheme other men con­demned to hard labor.  When Luke bucks prison officials, they undertake to bring him into line.  He escapes twice but they catch him and torture him.  Just when Luke has been broken by his tormentors and stripped of the respect of worshipful inmates, he escapes a last time and induces a malevol­ent, masked boss to shoot him dead.  Martyr­dom re-establishes Luke's legend among prisoners and viewers.

            True, such a story rehearses an establishment-bashing recipe hackneyed by the 1960s.  First, induce sym­pathy for an anti-hero who challenges unimpor­tant or unjust rules.  Next, relate the rules to a social     struc­ture in which ‘‘. . . every cop is a criminal /  And all your sinners saints.’’[6]  Then drive self-parodying defenders of conformi­ty to destroy the anti-hero, who long since has been apotheosized into a lovable rogue exposing the inanities of his and our time.  Roll the credits as film-goers return to lives of quiet desecration.

            If Cool Hand Luke did no more than follow the recipe above, critics would be correct to score the film for petty existential­ism,[7] trendy alienation,[8] and cheap impieties.[9]  With due respect to critics, I do believe that such criticisms miss more of the movie than they hit.  Cool Hand Luke extols a theory of expres­sive and repressive crimes.  Indeed, the movie and the theory interrelate crime and punishment, power and powerless­ness, and permanence and change, all through fail­ures to communicate.[10]  Cool Hand Luke is about Camus but about Orwell as well.


A Failure to Communicate


            When ‘‘The Captain’’ [Strother Martin playing the highest official in the road-prison] drawls out the most enduring line of the movie, audiences tend to chuckle at incongruities between his utterance and his situation.[11]


            [The Captain stands to the side as a Boss fastens leg-irons on Lucas Jackson, recently

            captured after his first escape.]


You gonna git used to wearin' them chains aftera while, Luke, but you never stop listenin' to them clinkin'.  That's gonna remind you of what I been sayin'.  For your own good.


Wish you'd stop bein' so good to me, Captain.


Don't you never talk that way to me!  . . .

[after striking Luke and impelling him down a small slope, The Captain regains his composure and addresses the other convicts:]

What we've got here is failure to communicate.  Some men you just can't reach . . . So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it.  Well, he gets it!  And I don't like it any better than you men.


This fa­mous­ly fa­tu­ous confrontation sets up the picture's predictable denouement:[12]


[Dragline, a convict, stands in the doorway of a small church, speaking to Lucas Jackson, who is surveying police cars surrounding the chapel.]


They caught up to me right after we split up and they was aimin' to kill you, Luke.  But I got 'em to promise, if you give up peaceful, they wouldn't even whip you this time.


            [flashing his familiar smile]

Do we even get our same bunks back?


Why sure, Luke. . . . They're reasonable, Luke . . .

[Luke smirks at Dragline's assessment, then opens the window of the sanctuary and surveys the assembled officials before he raises his voice.]



[Instantly, a shot rings out and Luke staggers under the impact of a slug that spatters his blood across the window.  Shot in the throat, Luke no longer speaks but nonetheless smiles.]


            Let us concede that the repeated catch-phrase encourages viewers to glide across the surface of Cool Hand Luke as if it concerned only gaps between generations or between officials and citizens.  The film's makers may have suffered their own failure to commu­nicate due to the very accessibility of this ‘‘hook.’’  If, as I believe, this movie may also be seen as a fable about power, authority, and influence, Cool Hand Luke embraces far more than sophomoric sentimentality.


Communicating Power, Influence, and Authority


            We may get more out of Cool Hand Luke if we observe in the film three ba­sic, pol­i­tical rela­tions: influence, authority, and power.  David V. J. Bell has de­fined each re­la­­tion in terms of the mode of communi­cation distinctive of each.[13]  Bell admits that these three are am­biguous terms that invoke overlapping ideas.  Still, he insists that we may profitably dis­tin­guish among communications that

a) threaten or pro­mise in order to in­duce an audience to do what other­wise they would not do [power];

b) command based on position and an ex­pec­tation of being obeyed [authori­ty];  and/or

c) persuade by revealing to an audience where their own inter­ests lie [influ­ence].



            Stealing from Sheldon Wolin,[14] I propose that these three relations offer those who battle crime and criminals an ‘‘economy of violence.’’  We may state this economics simply: prudent decision-makers will want to employ nonviolent influence as often as it gets the job done;  to rely on routine authority when influence would be inefficient or insufficient;  and to brandish power as an ultimate resort.  Let us explore this economics briefly.

            Influence ennobles both lis­teners by acknowledging their agency and speakers by casting them as a fidu­ciaries.  Influence fixes most responsibili­ty on the decision-maker and appears to overcome or to ignore hierarchy and to level speaker and lis­tener.[15]  For an  example pertinent to this film, please consider the degree to which penal re­habilitation en­courages trust and thereby at least a temporary identification and convergence be­tween cap­tors and captives.  We should expect great reliance on influence whenever prison personnel are helping rather than herding.

            Authority cannot but diminish the moral responsibility of the listener once incorporat­ed because authority entails com­mand and command pre­sumes hierar­chy.  An entitlement to be obeyed, moreover, must be demon­strated if a pur­veyor of authority is challenged.  Routine supervision requires guards and orderlies to exercise authority, so ordinary control is ubiquitous in institutional life.  In prisons, penal discipline is essential, for wardens and guards must herd if they are to help.  Nonetheless, overuse of authority may fan resentment and resis­tance, so prudent guards will invoke influence to quell indignation.

            Emergencies may call for power, but overt manipulation of sanctions menace fol­­lowers and leaders alike by raising leaders too far above followers and reducing human beings to thralls.  The greater the distance from which threats and promises cascade, the greater their impact on those at the bottom.  Even a lowly listener who flips off the phrase ‘‘It's your world’’ may mum­ble to himself or herself an ominous ‘‘. . . for now.’’[16]  Use of power shades into abuse of power so quick­ly that leaders may not perceive their transmogri­fication into tyrants.  When in­flu­ence fails and authority falters, leaders will turn to power but the corruptions power works are close behind.  When power corrupts ab­solute­ly or relatively, some lis­teners—imprisoned or free—move beyond resentment and re­sis­tance to revolt and re­venge.  To consider again the example of prisons, penal repres­sion is both necessity and luxury.  Those who would help must herd, but those who herd will hurt.

            Both power and authority are useful, so both will be used.  Because both are costly, both will often be dis­guised as influence.  Threats or bribes left im­pli­cit are tribute from power to influence.  Commands courteously phrased as sug­gestions husband sincere but officious author­ity for occasions when more respect­ful in­fluence falls short of speakers' ob­jec­tives.  To conclude with an example outside prisons, parents and other teachers may overpower their charges and order them about for a while, but enlight­ening their sense of self-in­terest encourages civility and inculcates citizenship.


Power, Authority, and Influence in Prison


            Certainly, Bell's insights apply to law and legal re­la­tions, especially in penal institutions that must attend to repression and discipline before rehabilitation becomes a priority.  Although prisons worry less about jus­tification and more about order than more genteel in­sti­tutions, even prisons can depend neither on unrelent­ing restraints nor on unrestricted reinforcement.  Uni­versal repression creates a Hobbesian battle-zone that cannot be sustained without troops and materiel.  Less re­pressive power, such as grant­ing and withholding favors, works when em­ployed sparingly but becomes expensive, es­pecially if leaders are ex­pected to monitor followers and administer negative and positive sanc­tions equita­bly and consis­tently.  Legal orders outside prisons build on and at­tempt to justify violence through regularity and responsiveness because sanctions are so extravagant.[17]

            Instead of the brutality and bribery of power, we expect war­dens and guards in penal institutions to formulate rules and norms that inmates may internal­ize.  We ex­pect law to be predictable in the wider society,[18] and, if we harbor any hopes for reha­bil­i­ta­tion or social­iza­tion, we want inmates and citizens to learn to abide by similar rules and norms.  At entry to prison, de jure and de facto norms are authority with power neither far behind nor well hidden.[19]  Over time, such norms may come to make sense to internees and may even be seen by them to express their best interests.[20]  If so, rules may become influence, at least for some subjects some of the time.[21]

            If genuine influence cannot be attained, superordinates have an interest in ap­pear­ing readier to counsel than to command or to coerce.  If officials can con­vincingly claim to be pursuing the interests of charges, influence is a happier relationship that reduces officers' ‘‘social altitude.’’  If the economy of power, authority, and influence works in prisons as well as in wider society, then, we should expect power and authority to pose as influence.





            Cool Hand Luke concerns power and authority posing as influence far more than critics have apprehended.  Granted, this movie takes stances that we associate with puerile exuberance.  Howev­er, adolescents are most likely to feel the sting of power and authority exercised ‘‘for their own good.’’  Let us reconsider Cool Hand Luke both in its immediate context [1967] and in its enduring context [the economy of violence outlined above].  To assist us in remembering restraints that most post-adolescents have long ago accepted, I intersperse lines from a poem written by A. E. Housman[22] when I believe that they spot­light important themes in Cool Hand Luke.  If similar attitudes danced in the heads of a poet in 1922 and movie­makers in 1967, we must suspect that those attitudes are less trendy and more enduring than reviewers appreciated.


The laws of God, the laws of man,

He may keep that will and can;

Not I:  let God and man decree

Laws for themselves and not for me;


An Inventory of Motifs


            Barely has Warner Brothers's logo faded when white let­ters spelling ‘‘VIOLA­TION’’ fill an otherwise red screen.  Direc­tor Stuart Rosenberg begins his fable with a close-up of a parking meter, the head of which Lucas Jackson [Paul Newman] is cutting off with a large pipe-cutter.  The pro­tag­onist swills beer and decapitates parking meters late one night or early one morn­ing.[23]  He pauses between long lines of coin-operated sen­tinels to drain one bottle, then employs the church-key on the chain around his neck to flip another lid.  When a patrol-car pulls slowly up and an officer asks, ‘‘What­'re you doin' there, fella?’’[24]  Luke flashes an expansive smile, a motif throughout the film.  We should note Luke's ‘‘full piano’’ of a grin whenever it appears, for it signals exuberance, mockery, or demystification as Luke's techniques for coping with imprison­ment on the chain-gang and elsewhere.

            When Luke is sentenced to a prison road-gang for two years for destruction of mu­nicipal property while under the influ­ence, his prank seems too paltry for punish­ment.  This start encourages film-watchers to search their stereotypes.  Is the judicial system of draw­ing first blood by incarcerating a drunken rebel?[25]  Is this still another parody of Southern jus­tice?[26]  Has a debtor been sent to prison, in ef­fect, because he cannot otherwise repay society for the beheaded meters?[27]

            How­ever, there may be more than existential exertion going on.  Luke explains his crime to an inmate as ‘‘settling up old scores.’’[28]  In set­tling his scores,[29] Luke mocked a world inhos­pitable to such license and by his mockery induced that world to overreact, a second motif that we should note when it reappears.  Mocking pseudo-influence is a central theme of this film, in my account.

            Luke's re­sponse to restraint is so trifling that we see his hyper-sensitivity as a flaw too ordinary to be tragic: rebel­ling against the sligh­test or­der, Luke asser­ts free­dom in a manner that guaran­tees that he'll have none.  This film about indi­vidual­ism shows us so much about Luke to admire but shows as well adoles­cent self-destruction.  Luke's civil disobedience recalls Holden Caulfield's opposition to phonies and exer­tion of authenticity: heroic and honest but foolish and crazy as well.[30]  No wonder critics rebelled against what they took to be a trendy cartoon.

            Why Luke does what he does is part of his and our ‘‘failure to communicate,’’ a third motif in the movie.  Luke will fail to communicate with The Captain, with bosses, with in­mates even, but not with many in the audience.[31]  Many movie-goers understood Luke, his message, and his sit­u­ation.  Perhaps most identified with Luke against merciless prison-of­fi­cials.  If so, then Luke was smiling from the screen, mocking rules and authorities in a manner that many in the audience likely fathomed beyond the shallow appreciation of some.



Deposing Petty Authority by Exposing Power


And if my ways are not as theirs

Let them mind their own affairs.

Their deeds I judge and much condemn,

Yet when did I make laws for them?


            Luke first takes on a prison authority as ‘‘street-level’’ as the officer who stopped his slaughter of innocent parking-meters, Dragline [George Kenne­dy].  Before Luke's advent, Drag­line had named inmates to match their personas.  He had mediated dis­putes and kept the peace.  He had conducted conspiracies to exploit the modest leeways permitted the prison­ers.  From the start of the film, Dragline dis­tin­guishes between free men [those who make rules] and prison­ers [those who submit to such power].  Inured to en­slave­ment, Drag­line has tried to use the little freedom his masters have left him.  Until Luke ap­pears, Dragline had prospered as a collabo­rator.  Actual authorities allow Drag­line and his syndicate to manage matters that do not concern prison officials;  in return, Dragline helps legit­imize inmates' con­ditions.  The movie does not explore this exchange as, for example, The Shawshank Redemption did.

            On his first night, Luke exposes Dragline as a boss wannabe:[32]



. . . All you Newmeats gonna have to shape up fast and hard on this gang.  We got rules here an', in order to learn them, you gotta do more work with your ears than your mouth.

            [Luke snorts in derision and smiles.]


Somebody say somethin'?



I didn't say nothin' [brief pause] Boss.


            Dragline resents Luke's deft, quick demystification as any petty tyrant would but this time lets Luke say a mouthful by saying ‘‘nothin'.’’  He threatens Luke after the next in­ci­dent.  When a new man [Ralph Waite playing ‘‘Alibi’’] is duped into buy­ing a non-exis­tent job and spends a night in a box the size of an outhouse, Drag­line defends the bosses' deci­sion:  ‘‘ . . . he back-sassed a free man.  They got their rules and we ain't got nothin' to do with that. . . . ’’  Luke quickly exposes Dragline's rationaliza­tion:  ‘‘Yeah, them poor ol' Bosses need all the help they can get.’’[33]

            Dragline tries to use superi­or force to gain Luke's ac­­quiescence.  That is, Drag­­line re­sponds to Luke's chal­lenges to his authority by threatening power.  He tells Luke he has a big mouth and that Dragline may have to settle the matter in a fist-fight.[34]  When Drag­line exacer­bates tensions excited by a girl washing her car, Luke exposes him as a sadist.  Luke has challenged Drag­line's authority direct­ly.  This occa­sions the fist fight, power.  The Captain and bosses allow a pecking order among convicts to be main­tained by the same means that legal authorities ultimately use, terror and violence.


The Importance of Being Impotent[35]


            The car-washing may seem like an entertaining and exploit­ative[36] in­terlude, but I urge you to take it more seri­ously than critics have.  Dragline glorifies ‘‘Lucille,’’ the girl washing the car.  [Dragline names even the girl!]  He uses the im­potence of the men, their inability to act on their most basic de­­sires, as a weapon against them to maintain his position as col­labo­rator-in-chief.  Unable to lead free humans, Dragline settles for being the man most at home with his own en­­slave­­­ment.  Dragline's use of impotence [just one nothing in the film] clashes with Luke's preference for making something out of nothing.  This collision of philosophies leads to a most revealing physical confronta­tion.

            When Dragline batters Luke, the inmates cannot take such overt violence from one of their own.  They accept explicit and implicit vio­lence from bosses and The Captain.  They cannot abide the violence of Dragline, perhaps because they see that it does not confer even author­ity, not to mention influence.  Dragline's sadism is overthrown because he cannot translate it to anything more attractive than power.  As Luke nears serious injury while butting Dragline's fist, inmates begin to avert their eyes and walk away in disgust.[37]  As The Captain rises from his rocking chair to stop Dragline from pounding Luke in­to the hospital, Dragline tries to carry his outmatched opponent into the bunk­house.  Luke will not permit even that small act of contrition.  When Dragline capitulates by trudging away alone, Luke staggers about.  Luke is still standing, albeit staggering about as he was while dead­heading the meters.  Dragline has not threatened the bosses' and The Captain's monopoly on life-endangering violence.  Luke has seized leadership of the bull-gang because Dragline did not back up his power-talk.

            Luke precipitates a revolu­tion among inmates by proving that Dragline cannot effectively coerce because he lacks the ultimate sanction.  When a prone and woozy Luke sees the chains on a fellow prisoner's legs during the fight, he cannot stay down.  Inmates see his character and admire his strength.  ‘‘You're gonna have to kill me,’’ Luke says.  Drag­line cannot.  The bosses and the Captain, we see later, can.  Dragline lacks ultimate power and, having lost authority by having to re­sort to power to fend off Luke's challenge, Dragline accedes to Luke's superior authori­ty and infl­uence.  Not a bloodless revolu­tion, but note that the devi­ant, the cri­mi­nal, accepts the coup without killing Luke, but the forces of official order ultimate­ly cannot.[38]

            Throughout the first hour of the film, Luke eludes Dragline's power and achieves influence through his ability to endure Dragline's hard fists, the hard road, and hard gambling.  Luke teaches his fellows that, if a man can take the punishments that power threatens and can forego the rewards power promises, then ‘‘some­times nothin' can be a real cool hand.’’[39]  Luke unmasks Drag­line's brutali­ty with nothing but heart.  He demonstrates he can work as hard and as long as veterans on nothing but will.  He bluffs Koko out of a big pot with a ‘‘handful of nothin'’’ and a truckload of nerve.

            ‘‘Sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand’’ sounds like ex­istential posing or a Kristof­ferson lyric, but not if we listen and watch.  Luke has more than noth­ing.  He is a convict with charisma, fortitude, and principle.  Possessed of so few material resourc­es that his brother exhausts his obligations by dumping Luke's banjo[40] at the prison, Luke has character.  On that character Luke soars above his peers then plummets to his death.[41]  His thorough-going individuality is his flaw:  perhaps mock-heroic, sometimes puerile, always romantic, and eventually fatal.


Successful Communication:  Example as Influence


Please yourselves, say I, and they

Need only look the other way.


            Cut loose from family after a visit from his dying mother and indifferent brother, Luke passes his time as leader of a new family.  He takes over the syndicate.  He teaches his fellows to prosper through virtually innocu­ous disobedience.[42]  This, however, is an alpha male whom no one need follow.  If an inmate finds Luke's pastime to be in the inmate's interest, he may follow.

            Luke shows internees that they can defy the bosses with impunity, not by shirking but by smirking.  Please recall the smile motif.  Luke shows others that, by work­ing harder and faster, they can wield their hard labor to expres­s individu­ality and control.  Luke thereby transforms an allegedly rehabilitative relationship.  The state sentenced him to hard labor.  He will make of that labor an ode to exertion, if not to growth.  Drag­line had used inmates' resigna­tion in their own slavery to seize power and authority for himself.  Luke uses influ­ence instead.  He shows his fol­lowers why his way confirms their dignity as human beings and confers some control over their lives.

            In a key sequence in the movie, the bull-gang com­pletes tarring so fast that the bosses have nothing for them to do.  Luke thereby shows how to overcome authority and power safely.  ‘‘Get the man!’’ Luke urges them, and they gain a sense of their own strength.  In Drag­line's phrase, the bosses do not know whether ‘‘to smile, spit, or swallow.’’[43]  They summon no authority-talk nor any power-talk to answer the bull-gang's assault on the Hard Road.  Done early, the in­mates ask ‘‘What do we do now?’’ and Luke smiles broadly, sits on his shovel, and suggests that inmates do ‘‘Noth­in'.’’[44]  Some­times nothing can be a real cool hand.  He who early on told Dragline and Carr the Floor­walker[45] that he had nothing to say seems to be saying something.

            An egg-eating spectacle provides another means by which Luke finds ‘‘something to do,’’ his expla­na­tion for cutting the heads off the parking meters and for his medal-winning exploits in Korea.  Luke proposes to eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour.  He occu­pies the attention of the camp and, with success, wins the admiration even of those who lost money.  Every cent in camp rides on it, making it as important as anything belonging to the convicts could be.  At the end of the egg-eating, the con­victs have been capti­vated and Luke is left smiling in a crucifixion pose.[46]  He smiles when an incredulous inmate insists that no one can eat fifty eggs.  By doing what others say cannot be done, Luke escapes the usual oppression of rules about what may not be done.  Such escapes are limited.  They are not, however, meaning­less or trivial to those who despair of more enduring or expansive escapes.

            Luke continues to exercise his individuality and cour­age, even when it draws him into conflict with authorities much higher and more dangerous than Dragline.  From the first, Luke recognizes Boss Godfrey [Morgan Woodward playing the head boss, whom inmates call ‘‘The Man With No Eyes’’ because he wears mirrored sunglasses].  When one of the new meats asks whether Boss Godfrey ever speaks, The Man With No Eyes displays his eye with a rifle by shooting an ascending game bird,[47] leading Luke to observe, ‘‘I believe he just said something.’’[48]  Luke later picks up a snake and The Man With No Eyes shoots its head off.  Luke prefigures his martyrdom by saying to his eventual execution­er, ‘‘You shore can shoot, man.’’[49]

            This bravado segues to a rainstorm in which Luke adoles­cently sasses God, ‘‘the Big, Bearded Boss.’’[50]  ‘‘Love me, hate me, kill me, anything.  Just let me know it!’’ he asks.[51] A puny prisoner com­mands the ulti­mate Authority to reveal even killing power to ease and to end his confinement.  This predica­ment, too, Housman anticipat­ed:


And how am I to face the odds

Of man's bedevilment and God's?

I, a stranger and afraid

In a world I never made.


            I am unsure whether we are supposed to see the report of the death of Luke's mother in the next scene as God's an­swer, but that seems to be how Luke takes it when he strums his banjo and sheds a tear while singing this hymn:[52]


I don't care if it rains or freezes

Long as I got my plastic Jesus

Sittin' on the dashboard of my car

Comes in colors pink and pleasant

Glows in the dark cuz it's iridescent

Take it with you when you travel far

Get yourself a sweet Madonna

Dressed in rhinestones

Sitting on a

Pedestal of abalone shell

Goin' ninety I ain't scary

Cuz I got the Virgin Mary

Assuring me that I won't go to Hell


            Thus, Luke makes it clear that he will take on authorities and even Authori­ty.  Still, romantic as it is, his petty distur­bance of the peace can neither be sustained by Luke nor tolerat­ed by the system.  The Captain cannot hear, the head boss speaks only through the reports of his rifle, and God appears to attend more to Luke's blasphemies than to Luke's complaints.  What we have here is failure to communi­cate!  Luke will be worn down by his inability to reach his betters and worn out by his inability to communicate with his peers.


Luke Exposes Pseudo-Influence


Please yourselves, say I, and they

Need only look the other way.

But no, they will not;  they must still

Wrest their neighbor to their will,

And make me dance as they desire

With jail and gallows and hell-fire.


            The Captain holds Luke off the road and in ‘‘the box’’ until Luke's mother is buried.   This outrages Luke.[53]  After all, the Captain could have delayed notifying Luke until Luke's mother was buried or could have told Luke that she was buried when she wasn't.  The Captain claims that he sends Luke to an upright coffin[54] for Luke's own good: ‘‘When a man's mother dies and he gits to thinkin' about her funeral and payin' respects, before he knows it his mind ain't right and he's got rabbit in his blood and runs.’’[55]  Luke questions The Captain's counterfeit concern and challeng­es this pseudo-influencepower or authority disguised as influence.  He shows that what the Captain claims to be for the inmates' own good is in fact in the Captain's and the bosses' interest.

            From the death of Luke's mother and his isolation in the box until the end of the film, Luke's disobedience becomes less mannerly demystification as his escapes become less fanciful.  Luke's smile grows more sardonic and his mockery less guarded as he conveys to prison officials that they won't get his mind right.  Luke backed down the bunkhouse bully by proclaiming, ‘‘You're gonna have to kill me.’’  Now he will extend to the bosses and The Captain the same admonition, although he will fail to persuade them until he mocks The Captain's lament about failure to communicate.  The very strategy Luke employed to bring Dragline down he now turns on the prison hierarchy and, eventually, God.  Upset at his ill treat­ment, Luke coaxes power to expose itself [the second motif, please recall].  Having directed the other con­victs to exploit captivity within bounds, Luke now charts his own path out of bounds.

            Luke's small struggles, in fact, had made confinement more comfortable for inmates, including himself.  Once provoked, Luke no longer shows inmates freedom amid captivity.  Instead, he strives to escape enslavement because his nothin' seems to have become an uncool hand.  He no longer exercises influence.  His escapes do not redound to the benefit of his fellows.  Indeed, his fans come to hate Luke for his dramatization of their desperation.  He abdicates influence to pursue his individual interests.  He has reached an end of what he can teach the others anyway.  Where Luke is headed, the prisoners cannot or will not go.

            Luke becomes a demystifying demon.  When kindly Boss Kean [John McLiam]  apologizes for putting Luke in the box to keep Luke from escaping to attend his mother's funeral, Luke mugs him,  ‘‘Call­in' it a job don't make it right, Boss.’’[56]  Luke does not acknowl­edge that Boss Kean promises to say a prayer for Luke's mother, an act that might expiate Luke's banjo-hymn.

            The Captain attempts to make of Luke's rebellion an irrational, self-defeating act so that the other inmates will see repression as for their own good.  Remember that that was how Dragline explained Alibi's having to spend a night in the box in the early part of the film.  The Captain offers the single most memorable line of the film:  ‘‘What we've got here is failure to communi­cate.’’[57]

            The irony of such a phrasing, of course, is that Luke cannot impart his view to the Captain and it is Luke's view that the inmates share.  The one-way communication in the camp is the language of power masquerading as influence.  Luke must oppose it or give up his vaunted individuality.  The Captain cannot hear Luke;  Luke will not hear the Cap­tain.  This breakdown in communication, the third motif, abets escape and retribution.




            Luke escapes three times in the final fifty minutes of the movie.  These es­capes mark Luke's inflection from passive to active rebellion.  Each escape is less playful and more consequential for Luke, his tormentors, and his admirers.  I shall highlight how each escape leads to a reversal of one or more of Luke's achievements at the prison.

            The reversals offer us the interesting hypothesis that ‘‘nothing’’ may be used to unmask power disguised as influence but anything more than nothing will provoke reprisals.  When the powerful stay out of the game, sometimes nothing can be a pretty cool hand.  When the powerful choose to play, sometimes everything is a losing hand.


Escape and Reversal One


            Immediately after emerging from the box after his mother was in the ground, Luke makes his least cunning breakout.  During an Independence Day celebration in the barracks, inmates dance loudly.  Bosses and trustees cannot hear Luke sawing through the floor.  Dragline invites Carr, the trustee who most directly supervises the barracks, to read a salacious passage, which diverts Carr from Luke's flight.

            That flight is remarkable for Luke's trademark smile and his frolicsome maneuvers.  Luke smiles in shot after shot.  This may suggest his joy at even a moment's liberation.  It may reprise his exuberant and tireless roadwork.  However, I interpret the shots in conjunc­tion with Luke's leaping from side to side along the same fenceline.  Luke is playing a more serious game with the trustees and bosses, but he is still mocking officials and their power.

            As recounted above, when Luke is re­captured after his first escape, his sarcasm incites The Captain to strike him.  Unlike his climb to power by pulling himself up each time Dragline knocked him down, Luke does not stand back up and say to The Captain what he said to Dragline, ‘‘You're gonna have to kill me.’’[58]  Indeed, for the first time in the movie, the lowliest authority, ‘‘Dog Boy’’ [Anthony Zerbe], verbally assaults Luke [although film-makers allow Luke to back-talk Dog Boy because Luke is not thoroughly degrad­ed after escape one].  Official toleration of Luke's sardonic mockery has ended.  Luke now wears leg-irons and the imprint of The Captain's club.  Luke's reversals have begun.


Escape Two and Reversals All Around


            The first time Luke escaped, he enjoyed the com­plicity of Dragline and others.  The second escape showcases Luke's individual cunning.  Luke uses more of his ‘‘noth­in',’’ a length of string that he begins to accumulate at lunch of the very day that he is returned from his first escape.  As Boss Kean testifies to Luke of Kean's religious faith [capped by a high standard:  in twenty-two years on the Hard Road, Kean has never killed a white man],[59] Luke interrupts him to ask to heed the call of nature.  Luke then uses the string to keep shaking a bush to indicate his presence after he has begun to flee again.

            In this second escape, Luke combines clever tactics and cute touches, as with his first escape.  He dupes two boys into aiding his escape.  He spreads chili powder and pepper across his scent.  Luke smiles at the boys and says, ‘‘You remember how them dogs do when they get here so you can tell me about it some day.’’[60]

            The inmates derived great pleasure from Luke's wily escape and even more from Luke's next amusement.  Luke sent them a photo­graph with showgirls at Luke's sides.  The mere illusion that one of them could be living the high life sustains some inmates.[61]

            After he is captured the second time and returned, Luke tells the convicts about his impotence against power and authority in the outside world:  ‘‘Nothin.  I had nothin, made nothin.  Couple towns, couple bosses.  Laughed out loud one day and got turned in.’’[62]  Ironically, bosses had tolerated Luke's mockery far more in the prison than economic bosses would do in ‘‘the Free World.’’  Luke's grinning and funning was tricky on the chain-gang but, apparently, even more challenging in the everyday world of work.

            Now, prison potentates must beat Luke or lose.  They break him to stop his escape and to stifle his example.  To effect this reversal, The Captain again wields Orwell more than Camus:  Luke must get his mind right.[63]  In the prison context, as in our own lives, a right mind is often a conformist, docile mind.  Luke is reduced to being water boy and gofer for The Man With No Eyes.  Luke must be degraded, not so much for his own sake [after all, they could always just kill him] as to instill in inmates the assurance that rebellion is foolish.  The Captain and his henchmen try to reform Luke to cow the bull-gang.  If Luke capitulates, he will become a tool of their propaganda, as Dragline had been at film's start.

            After the second escape, we may spot reversals aside from this most obvious.  The bosses severely beat Luke before they return him to the barracks.  This plot-development not only reveals the forces of order to be more brutal than the scofflaws, but also allows The Captain to absent himself from the sadism.  The bosses confine Luke to the box with minimal rations.  When Luke emerges from extended sol­i­tary, trustee Dog Boy's abuse becomes less verbal [at which, recall, Luke easily bested him] and more palpable.  Dog Boy heaps food on the plate of the man who could once eat fifty eggs and reminds Luke that if he does not eat it all, he goes back in the box.  To weather than this reversal, Luke depends on peers who finish their plates and then ostentatiously eat from Luke's plate.  The camera does not tell us whether Luke feels more acutely his inability to feed himself or his inability to fend for himself.

            A final reversal is most devastating.  Just as Luke and Dragline believe that Luke has survived his first week back, Boss Paul and Boss Kean alternate ordering Luke to get ‘‘his dirt’’ out of Boss Kean's imaginary ditch and, once he's created Boss Kean's ditch, to get ‘‘his dirt’’ out of Boss Paul's yard.  Amid this Sisyphean inversion of Luke's indefatiga­bility, Luke charges Boss Paul but is beaten down.  This time, the camera shoots from behind Boss Paul and we see Luke through the legs of Boss Paul—legs that do not have the chains that spurred Luke on in his fight with Dragline.  Reversal and inversion turn to rout when Luke, caned so severely that he is barely conscious while lying in Boss Kean's ditch and his own grave, begs Boss Paul not to hit him any more.  Luke calls upon God and thereby secures the interest of Boss Kean, who had prayed for Luke's mother and had suggested that Luke was being punished for his atheism.

            Luke repents his sacrilegious insubordination and insists that he has his mind right.  Boss Paul warns Luke that death is the wages of backsliding from the right mind into which the bosses have now baptized him.  Enter The Captain.  This kindly commander resurrects Luke from a barely early grave with avuncular smarm:  ‘‘OK, son.  Go get shaved and cleaned up and get some sleep.  I reckon you need it.’’[64]

            When Luke emerges from his would-be grave, he is too weak even to make it to his bunk.  He falls to the bunkhouse floor, alone and ignored by prisoners who once venerated him.  ‘‘Where are you now?’’ Luke asks fellow slaves when they look away from his re-enslave­ment.  He showed them what they could be, but once broken, he exhibited their weaknesses.  They could accept that once, under Dragline's regime.  Having tasted a more exalted existence, however, they cannot abide the reminder of the Captain's and bosses' power.  They reject Luke, perhaps because they do not want to believe that his subjugation is their fate.  The Captain and the bosses have, at least temporarily, reversed Luke's renown.


Escape Three and the Final Reversal


            Luke masterminds his final escape alone but, alas, Dragline impulsively hitches a ride on the truck that Luke is stealing.  That is, Luke not only must flee on his own [as he did the second time] but must now bear as well Dragline's formidable bulk.  Having been reduced to a waterboy and having endured scorn from peers who now regard him as  beneath them, Luke makes out of ‘‘nothin'’’ a climactic cool hand.  Luke's foreshadowed murder reverses Luke's fall.  Luke completes the film as legend and martyr.




            Luke's reversals are telling.  They consummate this fabulous study of power, authority, influence, and pseudo-influence.  Critics who scored Cool Hand Luke as a shallow tear-jerker might accept my analysis of Luke's relations with officials, peers, and rules and maintain nonetheless that this fable was facile.  After all, who—aside from some snotty academ­ic—gets to mock authority and unmask power with impunity?  Who—other than a poet—gets to choreograph martyrdom so neatly and completely?[65]

            What critics may have overlooked, in addition to political dynamics in the camp, was Cool Hand Luke's dramatization of the agon of standing apart.  This film displays both opportunities and perils in that lie in resistance.  Luke rose to primacy by going his own way.  Every step of his ‘‘path to the top’’ was dear.  If this film joins dozens of American films in glorifying the lonely truth-seeker opposed and oppressed by élite few and unworthy many, at least it reiterates Housman's warning to those who would flout the laws of God and man:


They will be master, right or wrong;

Though both are foolish, both are strong.


We are all vulnerable to coercion.  None of us can truly stand apart or by ourselves with impunity.

            Luke's individualism begins to fail him in various ways whenever he tries to exert his will.  Luke feels acutely restraints that his leader­ship imposes on him.  He regards his followers as cannibals:  ‘‘ . . . stop feedin' off me.’’[66]  Still, even as the inmates grow disen­chanted with him, they defend him.  He is still hero to some even as others lose their faith in him and in themselves.  His war against power and authority is their war, but they are ambiva­lent, just as the movie is.  As Luke begins to wear out, his hope fades and his energy wanes.  Only then will God and man leave Luke alone.

            Going his own way, Luke has attenuated social ties that might sustain him.  Proving human, Luke loses ‘‘disciples’’ and sinks beneath the weight of society—both the murderous­ly repressive madmen in power and the pathetically op­pres­sive subjects of authority now dog him.  For Luke, anything more than nothing is a hand that he cannot play cool.

            The loneliness of individualism is emphasized by Luke's conversa­tion with his dying mother and his non-conversa­tion with his brother.  Luke must confront dis­appointing his mother, Arletta, who loved him better than his brother.  Arletta made it clear that Luke re­minded her of his father, who also wasn't much for sticking around.  Luke pronounces Arletta's expectations and love a heavy burden.  She says she thought he was strong enough to bear it.  We know from what has already transpired in Korea, on the road, and in the fist fight that Luke is strong and resilient.  Howev­er, he is strong only at tasks that require him to be strong alone.  Mother, family, marriage, and ‘‘respect­abil­ity’’ weigh on him too heavily for him to endure them.  An irony of this movie is that Luke bears the yoke of the chain-gang but cannot sustain the burdens that we in the audience accept, usually, without a thought.  Perhaps we accept pseudo-influence in the same manner?

            We see this again when Luke final­ly breaks.  Having insisted on ‘‘elbow room’’ when the con­victs got too worship­ful, he gets it when they see that he is hu­man after all.  Luke achieves leader­ship on his own and on his own terms.  When he needs the compassion and help of others, he learns that he gets them only in exchange for heroics.  The benefits of family, both with his blood-relatives and with his prison-clan, are for grinning Luke burdens.

            When Luke breaks away the last time, he must get rid of his last disciple, Dragline, because he is tired of carrying others.  He must confront that ‘‘Big, Bearded Boss’’ alone.  He has tried to evade petty power and authority.  He seeks to learn his place in the larger camp run by The Boss.  He goes alone into the chapel, where he will meet his fate if not his God.[67]



Hey, Old Man!  You home tonight (pause)? . . . If You kin spare a minute, it's about time we had ourselves a little talk.  . . .  Old Man, I know I'm a pretty evil feller who killed peo­ple in the war and got drunk and chopped up municipal merchandise and like that.  I admit I ain't got no call to ask for much.  But even so, You ain't dealt me no cards in a long time.  I mean it's beginning to look like You got it fixed so that I can't never win out.  Inside or out, it's just different bosses and different rules.  Where am I supposed to fit in?  . . . When does it end?   . . . What You got in mind for me next, Old Man?  What do I do now?[68]  . . . [Luke relents, folds his hands, and drops to his knees]  . . .  Yeah.  That's what I thought.  I guess I'm just a hard case and I gotta find my way out myself. . . .  [Dragline enters the back door as police cars surround the chapel]  . . .  Is that your answer, Old Man?  You're a hard case too, ain't you?


Believing that his meager supplication to Providence had been spurned, Luke recites the sardonic catch-phrase of this movie and reels from the force of Boss Godfrey's bullet through his larynx.

            Thus, this movie is ambivalent throughout about indi­vidualism.  It is Luke's strength and his weakness.  The film's viewers must decide on a measure of individu­alism knowing that true individuality is very costly.  Thus does the adolescent become an adult.


A Defeatist Ending?


            Ultimately The Man With No Eyes kills Luke because Luke will not ‘‘get his mind right.’’  Killing Luke elevates him to heroic status and places him beyond earthly power, influence, or authority.  Luke becomes an power on his own in the retelling of Dragline.  ‘‘Cool Hand Luke, hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker!’’ gushes Dragline at film's end.[69]  The picture of Luke and the showgirls, taped back together after Koko had torn it in pique at Luke's capitulation to the bosses, serves as a relic.  The martyr is once again the object of admiration for the whole camp.  It's a costly way to be a leader, but a formula familiar from art and actuality.

            This end reveals anew the superficiality of seeing Cool Hand Luke merely as a tale about mean­ingless existence.  Luke's efforts end in his death, but clearly the film-makers admire Luke and believe that he has made a dif­ference.

            First and least, Luke has liberated himself.  Dragline tells inmates how dying Luke smiled as prison officials drove him away from the shooting.  ‘‘They shoulda known then that they were ne'er gonna beat 'im!’’[70]

            Second, the car drives over the mirrored glasses of Boss Godfrey, now forced to show his entire face after Dragline has assaulted him for the murder of Luke.  Luke has encouraged Dragline to escape [as Randall McMurphy did in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest for Chief Broom] and to unmask power rather than to legitimize it.  Such is a Christ-like act that even the reverent should appreciate.

            Third and most significant, as the prison car takes Luke to the prison for burial, it passes under a stop­light.  With Luke's passing, the green light changes directly to red, with no in­termedi­ate yellow.  The green is on top and the red on bottom!  It may be a small triumph, but Luke has turned an authority on its head.  He never quite settled his score with the parking meters, but his score with authority backed by power has been settled before Luke slips into death.  Luke has made a difference.[71]




And, since, my soul, we cannot fly

To Saturn nor to Mercury,

Keep we must, if keep we can,

These foreign laws of God and man.


            The movie ends with a montage of Luke Jackson and his broad grin, an ending con­sistent with a claim that Luke could liberate himself only through death.  Luke's soul could flee past Saturn and past Mercury, where he need not keep the foreign laws of God and man.  What else might the smile have meant throughout the film?

            The smile might instead mean that, like God and the Devil, Power and Auth­ori­ty are not mocked and cannot abide humor that levels them.  Humor, sarcasm, irony, and satire often expose truths.  Exposing truths imperils exposed and exposer, how­ever.  Exposure compels the exposed to rely on social resources that work with­out choice and absent credulity.  The exposed will often strive to limit exposure by eliminating exposers.  Luke knew the truth and the truth may have made him free.  It certainly made him dead.

            Thus, Luke's smiling front collided with the economy of political communi­ca­tion.  Rules and rulers, authority and power incited Luke's demystification.  Initially, Luke's grins and pranks were not overtly insubordinate to The Captain and the bosses.  Once gratuitous power and sanctimonious authority tyrannized Luke, Luke chose to resist more overtly.  His playful mockery of officials elicited brutish retribution.  As The Captain and his underlings tried to make authority and power into influence, opportunis­tic communication became more difficult and honest vengeance took the place of wily persuasion.  The makers of Cool Hand Luke have, following Orwell,[72] illustrated how insincerity breaks down communications.

            The film leaves the bull-gang and the audience at a crossroads.  Convicts have their inspiration for their confrontations with power and authority.  Members of the audience must choose as well.  Some will emulate Luke.  They will resist expressive and repressive crimes.  They will recognize crime that comes from on high as well as crime that wells from those below.  Others will cooperate and collaborate for security or advance­ment.  Maybe they will do so less easily for having experienced Luke's joy-ride.





[1].             For a list of movies about penitentiaries, prisons, and other penal institutions, please consult Richard B. Armstrong and Mary Willems Armstrong, THE MOVIE LIST BOOK  (Cincinnati: Betterway Books, 1994)  pp. 301-303.  For a survey of the genre, please see Bruce Crowther, CAPTURED ON FILM:  THE PRISON MOVIE  (North Pomfret:  Trafalgar Square, 1990).

[2].             Recent examples abound.  Dead Man Walking considers acknowledgement, repentance, and justice.  Murder in the First highlights perseverance and courage.  Hope is the resounding moral of The Shawshank Redemption, while Malcolm X more concerns redemption.

[3].             A Jalem Production distributed by Warner Brothers in 1967;  directed by Stuart Rosenberg;  produced by Gordon Carroll;  written by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson from Donn Pearce,  COOL HAND LUKE (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1965).

[4].             Friedrich Nietzsche,  THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA  (New York:  The Modern Library, n.d.)  (Thomas Common, translator)  p. 108 [Chapter 29, ‘‘The Tarantulas’’].

[5].             John Maynard Keynes,  THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT INTEREST AND MONEY (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936)  p. 383.

[6].             Mick Jagger and Keith Richards,  Sympathy for the Devil on the Rolling Stones' CD BEGGARS BANQUET (New York: ABKCO Records, 1986).

[7].             From Stanley Kauffmann,  FIGURES OF LIGHT:  FILM CRITI­CISM AND COMMENT  (New York:  Harper and Row, 1971)  p. 28:


His escapes are self-willed escapades, not acts of heroism.  And he gets himself killed out of stubborn cussedness, not for any cause or any practical reason.  Thus the popular film arrives in the age of anti-idealism and of the acte gratuit.  Camus's Absurdity on the quar­ter shell.

[8].             Pauline Kael,  GOING STEADY  (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1970) pp. 35, 60.

[9].             Frank N. Magill (editor),  MAGILL'S SURVEY OF CINEMA  (Volume One:  English Language Films,  First Series)  (Engle­wood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Salem Press, 1980) pp. 384-386.  On Christ-symbols, please see ‘‘Theological Criticism,’’ in Joel W. Martin and Conrad E. Oswalt, Jr.  (editors),  SCREEN­ING THE SACRED:  RELIGION, MYTH, AND IDEOLOGY IN POPULAR AMERICAN FILM  (Boulder, Colorado:  Westview Press, 1995) p. 15.  Compare essays at  [‘‘­cagi/coolhand2.0/­ml’’ and ‘‘http://falcon.jmu.ed­u:80/­~delucagi/coolhand2.0/jesusinfo.html’’] on the World Wide Web.

[10].           I invoke in this sentence three well known works that raise questions similar to those that I find in Cool Hand Luke.  Please see Fyodor Dostoevsky, CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Constance Garnett, translator) (New York:  Walter J. Black, 1942);  John Gaventa, POWER AND POWERLESSNESS:  QUIESCENCE AND REBELLION IN AN APPALACHIAN VALLEY (Urbana:  University of Illinois Press, 1980);  and  Kenneth Burke, PERMANENCE AND CHANGE:  AN ANATOMY OF PURPOSE  (New York: New Republic, 1935).  If Mr. Rosenberg, a director who trained on television, is incapable of critics' respect, perhaps similar investigations by a novelist, a sociologist, and a literary critic can gild Cool Hand Luke with importance by association.

[11].           I render dialogue from the movie by reproducing the words from the screen­play in IDENTITY:  PRINT VERSIONS OF THE FOLLOWING FILMS:  ‘‘THAT'S ME,’’ ‘‘THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RUNNER,’’ ‘‘COOL HAND LUKE,’’ AND ‘‘UP THE DOWN STAIRCASE’’ (New York:  Scholastic Book Services, 1974) pp. 79-134.  This passage appears first on p. 119, col. 2.  I have reproduced the key sentence in boldface.

                I henceforth refer to this script as ‘‘Pearce and Pierson.’’  The reader should realize that words in the release will vary slightly from the screenplay.  I alter punctuation in dialogue when I believe that it increases clarity and I replace characterizations of characters' movements to suit the release.

[12].           Pearce and Pierson, pp. 133-134.  As I warned in the previous note, I alter descriptions of actions to suit the released film.  The famous phrase was capitalized in the script.

13             David V. J. Bell,  POWER, INFLUENCE, AND AUTHORITY : AN ESSAY IN POLITICAL LINGUISTICS (New York : Oxford University Press, 1975).

[14].           Sheldon S. Wolin,  POLITICS AND VISION:  CONTINUITY AND INNOVATION IN WESTERN POL­ITICAL THOUGHT  (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1960)  pp. 220-224.

[15].           Influence may even coax from an audience convictions of lis­teners' authority or even power over the speaker, as in a political campaign.  Self-pro­claimed public-servants ritualistically flatter voters in cam­paigns because voters tolerate power or author­ity in themselves better than in others.

[16].           For example, Randall P. McMurphy [Jack Nicholson] in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest reminds the guard who is pushing him away from the edge of the pool that they may meet up on the outside.

[17].           Philippe Nonet and Philip Selznick,  LAW AND SOCIETY IN TRANSITION:  TOWARD RESPONSIVE LAW  (New York:  Harper & Row, 1978).

[18].           Of course, expectations for formal rules require more than mere predictability.  Please see Professor Lon L. Fuller's ‘‘desiderata’’ in THE MORALITY OF LAW  (Revised Edition)  (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1969)  pp. 33-91.

[19].           Please consider prisoners' introductions to their penal homes in The Shawshank Redemption, An Innocent Man, and Papillon.  Cinematic boot-camps are comparable settings for candid expressions of power and authority.

[20].           Please consider the testimony uttered by F. Murray Abraham in AN INNOCENT MAN:  ‘‘It's simple in here.  It's an insane place with insane rules, so it ends up bein' logical.’’

[21].           Indeed, if inmates return the favor by pointing out self-interest that the guards or wardens may have missed, mutual influence or exchange may result.  I do not consider exchange-relations in this paper.  Regarding exchange in prison, please screen The Shawshank Redemp­tionThe Longest Yard, Victory, or Good Fellas.

[22].           THE COLLECTED POEMS OF A. E. HOUSMAN  (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965) p. 111.

[23].           Of course, the viewer must cede some artistic license here.  Unless the parking meter ranged to five or six hours, how could the time on the meters be running out just as Lucas Jackson is cutting off the heads?

[24].           I quote here from the release because this scene was not in the script.

 [25].          This is a device in, for example, the first movie to feature Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo:  First Blood.

[26].           A famous ‘‘take’’ on Southern justice is In the Heat of the Night, but James Baldwin effectively shows the degree to which that film sanitizes relations in the South in THE DEVIL FINDS WORK:  AN ESSAY  (New York:  Dell, 1976)  pp.  61-69.  Caricatures are equally safe but more abundant in My Cousin Vinnie.  The parody in Cool Hand Luke may be quite near the mark—Bob Herbert, Brutality Behind Bars, THE NEW YORK TIMES [National edition] (July 7, 1997) p. A17, cols. 1-2.

[27].           Minimizing the venality of an imprisoned protagonist is, of course, a familiar tactic in film-making.  Please compare Murder in the First, The Shawshank Redemption, The Longest Yard, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.

[28].           Pearce and Pierson,  p. 90, col. 1.

[29].           In the script, Luke identified the first meter slain on screen with a general who awarded him a medal and a second with Helen, a woman over whom Luke lost his head.  Please see Pearce and Pierson, p. 82, col. 1.  These details did not make it into the released film.

[30].           Luke resembles the protagonist in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (Boston: Little, Brown,  1951):  a man-boy who won't back down.  Like a teenager, Luke strikes back at restraints that are in his commu­nal if not indi­vidual interests.  This rebel has a cause but one that he cannot convey to ordinary adults, who may never have per­ceived mundane concessions as defeats or, if once they did, no longer recall the exuber­ance of self-exertion against forces and fences that wall in the brave and the lonely everyday and everywhere.  Please refer as well to Lonely Are the Brave, in which Jerri Bondi [Gena Rowlands] denigrates Jack Burns's [Kirk Douglas] resistance to restraint as childish.

[31].           Indeed, that this film communicated reached an audience seems to be what an­noyed Pauline Kael most!  Please see note 35.

[32].           Pearce and Pierson,  p. 87, col. 2.  I have altered the dialogue from the screenplay because the words that George Kennedy actually says in the release are, in my view, more striking.

[33].           Both quotations may be found in Pearson and Pearce, p. 94, col. 2.  I substituted ‘‘Bosses’’ for guards because that is what Newman clearly says in the release.

[34].           Pearce and Pierson,  p. 94, col. 2.

[35].           The script called for more explicit and frequent references to women and sex.  The novel is even more explicit.

[36].           Pauline Kael's screed on this point shows how superficial one's glance at the screen must be to consider the car-washing scene a harmful diversion:


Stuart Rosenberg, the director of WUSA, made his movie reputation with a contemptible success, Cool Hand Luke, a film that pretended to have something to say and was full of touches designed to make the audience feel ‘‘knowing’’—such as a girl teasing a bunch of convicts by washing her car seductively, playing with the nozzle of a hose and squeezing fluid out of a sponge.  That is, he transferred a commercial hack's sexual innuendo onto a young girl, just for effect.  Rosenberg's ‘‘touches’’  don't grow out of his material—they're stuck on;  his movies are full of signals to us, but the signals don't direct us anywhere.  The road gang in Cool Hand Luke went through a lot of waste motion just to satisfy the director's desire for a rhythmically edited sequence,  . . .


Pauline Kael, Deeper Into Movies (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1973) p. 181.

                First, let me answer Ms. Kael's ad hominem with one coming right back at her:  it takes some nerve for the author of I Lost It at the Movies, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Going Steady, and Deeper Into Movies to denounce sexual innuendo.  On a more rational level, please notice that Rosenberg was seeking, according to Kael, just to make the audience feel knowing and just to create a rhythmic sequence.  I pass by conventional use of ‘‘just’’ to denote ‘‘simply’’ or ‘‘solely’’— perhaps Ms. Kael just changed her mind in mid-paragraph or just tacked on another thought about just why Mr. Rosenberg deserved her vitriol.

                Third, I believe that I can justify the sequence by more than its rhythm.  I reject as ob­tuse the claim that audiences felt that they understood something that the in­mates [or whom­ever Ms. Kael believes to be out of the know] did not.  Rosenberg's rhythm de­rives from shooting the young woman from inside an old automobile as she washes it.  As she washes the car's roof, she presses her ample bosom against the window through which the camera shoots, nearly creating a three-dimensional effect.  Certainly sexual and perhaps exploitative, the sequence tends to make college students—males and females alike—squirm and laugh nervously.  The sequence may create in many viewers discomfort.  It may even cater to the prurient in some watchers.  Absent such effects, Dragline's tormenting of inmates, inmates' ‘‘cold showers,’’ and a fistfight over ‘‘Lucille’’ would make less sense.  As in many yarns, the provocation must be supreme.

[37].           Please notice that the inmates who first assist Luke to his feet and who counsel him to stay down are the most marginal inmates.  Two are new meats who came in the new-meat wagon with Luke.  The third is ‘‘Society Red’’ [played by J. D. Cannon], a bad-check artist who maintains his distance [he imagines it to be superiority] from the other inmates by, among other practices, reading The New York Times.  I cannot decide whether to see Society Red as a detached, unemotional observer or as an analytic, fearful rationalizer.  Either way, I suspect he would do well in academic politics.

[38].           Compare on this point The Longest Yard, in which a guard would not kill a prisoner as the warden ordered.

[39].           I allude below to Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee:  ‘‘Free­dom's just another word for nothin' left to lose.’’  

[40].           I like this choice of a musical instrument invented by Africans and introduced to the American South by African-American slaves.  In the novel, Donn Pearce seems to me to use the banjo both to illustrate still another of Luke's excellences and to construct a very working-class hero.

[41].           On this point, one might compare Icarus or Jack London, whose credo seems to explain Luke's ‘‘preference-structure:’’


I would rather be ashes than dust!  I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot.  I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.


RESPECTFULLY QUOTED (Suzy Platt, editor) (Washington: Library of Congress, 1989) p. 213.

[42].           A more recent example of this tactic adorned The Shawshank Redemption, when Andy Defresne [Tim Robbins] locked himself in an office and played Mozart over the prison's loudspeakers.

[43].           Pearce and Pierson,  p. 105, col. 2.

[44].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 106, col. 2.

[45].           In Luke's first moments inside the prison's barracks he had made faces [ever the adoles­cent?] at trustee Carr's litany of ways to ‘‘spend a night in the box.’’  Carr then asked if Luke was going to be a hard case.  Luke shook his head in the negative.  Perhaps Luke had not intended to be a hard case.

[46].           The script shows that this pose is quite intentional:  ‘‘We see Luke, lying half naked and unconscious with his arms spread out hanging over the table.  His pose is almost Christlike.  He is smiling.’’  Pearce and Pierson, p. 113, col. 2.

[47].           In the release, Boss Godfrey appears to shoot a pheasant on the rise—a sporting diversion.  The script called for The Man With No Eyes to shoot a crow.

                Please note that The Man With No Eyes later shoots a snapping turtle lazing in a slough.  When Boss Paul orders Luke, once a snapper but now a gofer, to retrieve and to clean the dead reptile, Luke escapes for the third and final time.  In another anticipation of his demise, Luke holds the turtle aloft by a long pole and grins as he shouts, ‘‘Here he is, Boss.  Deader'n hell but he won't let go.’’  Pearce and Pierson, p. 131, col. 1.

[48].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 92, col. 2.

[49].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 114, col. 1.

[50].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 114, col. 2.

[51].           I have quoted the release.  The script called for Luke to shout, ‘‘Come on!  Make me know You're up there!  Kill me or love me, one or the other.’’  Pearce and Pierson, p. 115, col. 2.

[52].           I have quoted this lyric from the release.  The words are not in the script.  The film-makers appropriated a profane hymn for the banjo scene.  They might have done worse, to judge from the variety of doggerel listed under ‘‘Sounds’’ at ‘‘http://falcon­­:80/­~deluc­agi/coolhand2.0/sounds/­plasticjesus.html,’’ the ‘‘Cool Hand Luke Homepage.’’

[53].           Recall from note 44 that Carr the Floor­walker had listed myriad ways to ‘‘spend a night in the box’’ and then asked Luke if Luke would be a hard case.  Luke may not have anticipated that he would be a hard case, but his nights in the box changed his mind.  The box, designed as a sanction to get prisoners' minds right, becomes a spur to set Luke's mind wrong.  This is first among a series of reversals in the latter half of the movie.

[54].           Ms. Mercedes C. Garrido suggested that I compare the boxes in which Luke and his mother were placed.  I thank her.

[55].           Pearce and Pierson, pp. 116-117.

[56].           Pearce and Pierson,  p. 117, col. 1.

[57].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 119, col. 2.

[58].           Perhaps Luke said it to Dragline because Dragline could hear Luke and would act on what we might define as power-talk:  ‘‘If you insist on hitting me, I shall punish you by making you beat me to death.’’  The end of the film makes it evident why such a message would not deter The Captain or The Man With No Eyes.

[59].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 121, col. 1.

[60].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 122, col. 2.

[61].           I cannot decide whether Luke exacerbates by this ersatz photograph the sexual frustrations that Dragline had exploited after the car-washing scene.

[62].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 126, col. 1.

[63].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 124, col. 2.

[64].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 129, col. 1.

[65].           Playwrights, novelists, and movie-makers have flourished license as freely as poets.  Please consider A Tale of Two Cities, A Man for All Seasons, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Shootist, and Thelma and Louise as examples of immaculately choreographed martyrdom.

[66].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 126, col. 1.

[67].           Pearce and Pierson, pp. 132-133.

[68].           This query apes Dragline had asking not two minutes before, when Luke cut him loose, ‘‘But what am I gonna do all by myself?’’  Pearce and Pierson, p. 132, col. 2.

[69].           Pearce and Pierson, p. 134, col. 2.  I have chosen the sentiment in the released edition because it conveys Luke's victory more than the original script did.  This version may be confirmed in Melinda Corey and George Ochoa (editors),  The Dictionary of Film Quotations  (New York:  Crown Trade Paperbacks, 1995)  p. 82, col. 2.  This sentiment is the only entry other than the famous line about ‘‘failure to communicate.’’

[70].           Again, I cite the released version, not the script.

[71].           Director Rosenberg reused this formula in his 1980 film, Brubaker.  As reformer Henry Brubaker [Robert Redford] is driven out of the prison, inmates indicate their appreciation for his efforts by applauding him.  Dickie Coombes [Yaphet Kotto], a trustee who has opposed Brubaker's reforms as misguided, says to Brubaker [with no apparent justification] ‘‘You were right.’’

[72].           Politics and the English Language in SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT, AND OTHER ESSAYS (London:  Secker and Warburg, 1950) pp. 84-101.