“What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
It’s one of the best, most often quoted, and iconic lines in cinema history. For those who’ve seen COOL HAND LUKE, it’s unforgettable. For any who have not seen the film, I recommend it. The screenplay, adapted from the novel by Donn Pearce, and written by Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, was nominated for an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. It was the first film directed by Stuart Rosenberg and it’s arguably his best.
I had not seen the film in some years but I happened to catch it last night on Turner Classic Movies. Uncut and no commercials.
COOL HAND LUKE tells the story of a man who refused to stay down. When we first meet him, Lukas Jackson, (played by Paul Newman in one of his finest roles and Oscar-nominated), flashes a beguiling smile as he’s arrested for cutting the heads off of parking meters. Sentenced to two years in prison, he works on a road gang. They spend their days cutting weeds, digging ditches and tarring roads. Nights are for playing cards and making bets about almost anything. Prisoners are warned that any infraction of the prison rules will result in them spending a night in “the box,” a squalid, cramped, stand-alone wooden cell.
Luke ends up in a fight with Dragline, the hulking head convict, played by George Kennedy who won an Academy Award for best supporting actor. Dragline knocks Luke down repeatedly, but Luke won’t stay down, even when other prisoners, and Dragline, too, tell him to do so. Luke gains the respect of Dragline and the rest of the convicts because he keeps swinging away. As Dragline says with admiration, “He kept coming back at me, with nothin’.”
But the prison warden, called Captain and played by Strother Martin, and the guards, all called Boss, take note of Luke’s tenacity. And they don’t like it.
Luke is one of the most likeable anti-heroes in film. “I can eat fifty eggs,” he claims at one point, resulting in one of the most memorable and amusing sequences in the history of film. Later in the picture, Luke breaks out (I don’t want to give away too much for those who haven’t seen it), and when he’s captured and brought back beaten and bloodied, one of the guards calls him over to a piece of ground. “What’s your dirt doing in Boss Kean’s ditch?” the guard asks Luke. Luke digs the dirt out, creating a hole that looks precisely like a grave. (The film is rich in symbolism and imagery.) Hours later, another guard comes by and tells Luke to get that dirt back in the hole because he doesn’t want that dirt in his yard. He warns Luke to “get his mind right.” Through all this, Luke’s fellow prisoners keep watch on him from the prison barracks, singing spirituals, giving him encouragement not to give up, not to break.
COOL HAND LUKE was released in 1967, a seminal year for films that also saw BONNIE AND CLYDE, THE GRADUATE, IN COLD BLOOD, and IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT. It’s one of the best prison films ever made. Right along with THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and BRUTE FORCE.
COOL HAND LUKE celebrates the human spirit. Luke is a loner, a man who doesn’t fit in, a man who does not conform. As Dragline says, “He’s a natural-born world-shaker.”