Last fall I participated in a podcast where the feature film was “Cool Hand Luke”. A couple of the other guests did not seem to “get” it. They did not see a story arc, the plot doesn’t go anywhere because Paul Newman’s character does not really change and neither do the other prisoners. I wanted to scream at everyone, but since I was a guest and hoped to be invited back, that did not seem like a good idea. Instead, I did my best to try and put the film into context. This film is from the most turbulent decade of the last century. Some of the things that people take for granted these days are a result of changes wrought in the 1960s. The sexual revolution, the women’s movement, anti-war activism, civil rights and a whole host of other movements sprung from the non-conformists of the 60s. Although “Cool Hand Luke” is set in the 1950s, this film’s sensibilities are all about being iconoclastic outsiders.
I meant to save this film for later in the projects development, but an invitation to participate in a blogathon involving prison pictures came up and I could not pass up the chance to talk about this again. Down the road, I may do some deeper posts and we will reflect more on the star of this blog, but for now we are going to stick with the setting of the film. A work camp for prisoners, set in the deep South and set in their ways when it comes to theories of penology. In many ways it is not far removed from other prison based films.
If you see “The Bridge on the River Kwai” or “The Great Escape”, you will notice that the Japanese and the Germans both employ isolation units in their prisoner of war camps. It’s hard to believe but American prisons up through the 50s employed a hot box closer to the Japanese torture tool than the “Cooler” featured in the European based film. The work crews in the U.S. were only slightly better off than the British soldiers imprisoned in that hell hole in the jungle. The wardens of these facilities are martinets that insist on their policies being followed. While the face of the Southern prison farm in this movie is more avuncular, there are intimidating underlings that clearly would be happy to carry out stronger punishments for transgressions by the inmates.
Into this setting drops Luke Jackson. He is a petty criminal whose offense was to cut the heads off of the local parking meters in the small town that he was drunk in. This is not a case of an innocent man being punished, but rather, a character who just can’t help himself. Doing things the easy way is not in his nature. Especially if someone else is calling the shots. Paul Newman has a sweet smile but is largely indifferent to the people around him. He does not make friends very easily, and even when he does he seems to keep them at a distance.
The prison setting here is not oppressive, except in the extreme work regimen and rules the inmates have to follow. Some of the guards act a bit paternalistic, and the Captain of the Prison gives pep talks filled with advice, but it’s just not the kind of advice Luke can take. He is an icon of 60s style nonconformity. The phrase that describes “The Man” in this time was “The Establishment”. Luke will do what he can to knock the Establishment back a step or two,.
The one inmate that wants to bond with him at first wants to crush him. The hulking “Dragline”, played by George Kennedy in his Academy Award winning role, is a guy who sees himself as a leader, but recognizes that his influence is limited. While he always remains the top dog in the yard, in truth, Luke is the laissez faire leader. A guy who influences others only through modeling behavior and testing the norms of the system. He would never tell anyone what to do, but others begin to see something in him that is a danger to the structure of the institution, which is why he ultimately needs to be crushed.
For example, he randomly takes on the challenge of eating fifty eggs, just because someone suggests that it can’t be done. Earlier in the film, he fails in a fight against the bigger and stronger “Dragline”, but still ends up gaining respect from the other prisoners by his indefatigable attitude. If getting his ass handed to him earns admiration, imagine how hyped up everyone will get when he succeeds at this impossible task. It doesn’t violate any rules, there is no direct threat to the camp, but he becomes an inspirational figure to others, who may potentially follow suit in being disruptive parts of the community. An even bigger threat occurs when he escapes from the camp a couple of times. Every minute he is gone becomes a beacon to the others. None of them actually try to emulate him until his final attempt. That’s when he has crossed the line and must be crushed.
The Captain is played by Strother Martin, the main focus of this blog. The part does not have extensive pages of dialogue, but what there is is choice. There are sequences where Martin conveys all we need to know with some pursed lips or a head roll. On the surface he seems mild mannered and even polite. When his authority, and thus the authority of the whole establishment, is challenged, his temper flares. Losing control and striking out is a victory for the malcontent rather than the system. Jay gets to utter the line for which he is justly famous in his moment of defeat. It summarizes the whole plot of the movie.
It will never be enough to inflict punishment, because the two unstoppable forces are not equally matched. That’s the threat that the system sees, and the reason it comes down so hard on Luke. Time in the box, a long sequence of work based torture, and chains on his ankles will not do the job. It is never going to be a happy ending, but it will be a legendary story in the prison.
The film is filled with character actors that populated the film and TV landscape for the following three decades. We will revisit those performers another time and also expand the the performance of Strother Martin. For now however, the prison setting is a metaphor for the oppression of the non-conformists of the era. Naked use of power can be an ugly thing, and the prison setting shows us just how much that is true.