One can draw upon many sources for inspiration. I was 4 years old when the film Cool Hand Luke was released and until I discovered it years later, I found an affinity to the material that continues to stay with me to this day. The single most identifying character trait that strikes me as most redeeming in the Luke character played by Paul Newman is in his determination and volition. The value of such a trait can be clearly understood if one considers that the principles behind this powerful drive are just and not acted out in vain with the mind of a non-reflective zealot.
Life can be a struggle, and a challenge, that does not just simply give us easy answers. It takes work to sift out a higher understanding, it takes patience to better understand our role in a world whose framework consists of many layers, and to progress through this world, we often meet disappointment, conflict and tension between ideals and/or others that stand in our way. The universe can provide us with a multitude of exhibitions that champion the human soul over a chaotic experience. I’m not sure just how many times in my life when I could recount examples that would somehow help me dissipate anxiety and slowly aid me in dissolving the plights I was facing. Sometimes the simplest of inspirations come from sources you wouldn’t typically consider.
Quite possibly the best prison drama ever made, Cool Hand Luke (1967) follows a man, incarcerated for drunken petty vandalism, who has so much fight in him that he continuously finds a way to beat the odds. That tenacity is dramatized in an early scene during which Luke manages to win a poker game despite having been dealt some terrible cards. (“Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand,” Luke says, thereby giving the character his nickname and the movie its title.) Luke triumphs, often, because he perseveres. Even in the corrupt place where he’s imprisoned, he carries himself with dignity. Sure, he engages in the not especially dignified stunt of eating 50 eggs to win a bet—but more significant than that, he refuses to ingratiate himself with either the guards or the intimidating inmate Dragline, who calls the shots among the prisoners. In the process, Luke becomes something of a spiritual beacon for the other inmates. At various points in the movie, it’s even hinted that he’s a Christ-like figure.
Luke, who rebels without harming others, is worthy of our attention. But people who hold civilization hostage, harm others, and manage to grab publicity in the process aren’t—or at least shouldn’t be.
Getting his peers to worship him isn’t Luke’s goal, however. He rebels against the unjust world he’s trapped in not to impress anyone but because he has to answer to his inner god. In fact, his celebrity status in prison can feel like an unbearable responsibility; his awareness of how much he embodies hope for the other men weighs on him, suffocatingly so at times. At a certain point in the film—shortly after he’s recaptured following his second escape from prison—Luke is sprawled out on his back, physically bloodied and spiritually bowed, shackled hand and foot, as his fellow prisoners are gathered around him, clamoring for the next show of his incredible will. Unable to muster it, he shouts, “Stop feedin’ off me! … I can’t breathe! Give me some air!”
You could say that Luke has a “self-destructive” streak (and that Christ had one too). But it is inextricable from his self-respect; he’d rather live—and die—on his own terms than accept an eviscerated existence. Luke is engaged in a daily existential battle for his soul—and as the boxing scene helps to demonstrate, he’s one hell of a heroic anti-hero.
Luke: [Discussing God and the rain] Let him go. Bam, Bam.
Dragline: Knock it off, Luke. You can’t talk about Him that way.
Luke: Are you still believin’ in that big bearded Boss up there? You think he’s watchin’ us?
Dragline: Get in here. Ain’t ya scared? Ain’t ya scared of dyin’?
Luke: Dyin’? Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Do ya hear that? Are ya hearin’ it? Come on. You’re welcome to it, ol’ timer. Let me know you’re up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it.
[He looks around]
Luke: I’m just standin’ in the rain talkin’ to myself.
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, it’s iridescent
Take it with you when you travel far
Get yourself a sweet madonna
Dressed in rhinestone, settin’ on a
Pedestal of Abalone Shells
Goin’ 90, I ain’t scary
Cause I got the Virgin Mary
Assuring me that I won’t go to hell
Dragline: [After Luke wins a poker game by bluffing] Nothin’. A handful of nothin’. You stupid mullet head. He beat you with nothin’. Just like today when he kept comin’ back at me – with nothin’.
Luke: Yeah, well, sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.
Captain: You’re gonna get used to wearin’ them chains after a while, Luke, but you never stop listenin’ to them clinkin’. ‘Cause they’re gonna remind you of what I’ve been sayin’ – for your own good.
Luke: Wish you’d stop bein’ so good to me, Cap’n.
Captain: [lashing out with his stick] Don’t you ever talk that way to me. Never! Never! 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 anymore than you men.
Note: bolded portion ranked #11 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.
Luke: Anybody here? Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute. It’s about time we had a little talk. I know I’m a pretty evil fellow… killed people in the war and got drunk… and chewed up municipal property and the like. I know I got no call to ask for much… but even so, You’ve got to admit You ain’t dealt me no cards in a long time. It’s beginning to look like You got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all of them… rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Now just where am I supposed to fit in? Old Man, I gotta tell You. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginning to get to me. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me? What do I do now? Right. All right. [Gets on knees, closes eyes and begins to pray] On my knees, asking. [pause] Yeah, that’s what I thought. I guess I’m pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. Yeah. I guess I gotta find my own way.
[Police cars arrive]
Luke: [Shakes head and smiles] Is that Your answer, Old Man? I guess You’re a hard case, too.
Dragline: Luke? You all right? They got us, boy. They’re out there, thicker than flies. Bosses, dogs, sheriffs, more guns than I’ve ever seen in my life. You ain’t got a chance. They caught up with me right after we split up. And they was aimin’ to kill ya. But I fixed it. I got ‘em to promise if you give up peaceful, they won’t whip ya this time…Luke, you gotta listen to me. All ya got to do is give up nice and quiet. Just play cool.
Luke: [standing before an open window] What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
[Luke is shot in the throat]
Dragline: 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. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he’s a natural-born world-shaker.
- Cool Hand Luke (thecinematicidiot.wordpress.com)