Sometimes nothing is a real cool hand.
BQB here with a review of the 1960’s classic, “Cool Hand Luke.”
NOTE: You’ve had since the time period of the Vietnam War to watch this thing but if you haven’t yet, SPOILERS abound. Go watch on Netflix, then come back here and discuss.
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate, 3.5 readers.”
It’s ironic that this iconic line is featured in a film that, from a writer’s perspective, is a veritable showcase of that age old art – “show, don’t tell.”
In fact, early on in the film, we meet a stoic guard who presides over the Southern hard labor prison camp, who hides behind a pair of mirrored aviator shades. As the convicts toil under the hot Florida sun, he takes aim at a fast flying bird and blam! He shoots it, causing it to drop dead right out of the sky.
QUOTE ONE CONVICT: “Why doesn’t he ever say anything?”
QUOTE ANOTHER CONVICT: “Oh, I think he just said something.”
(I may not have gotten that wording exact but close enough and I don’t have time to find the scene and get it one-hundred percent.)
Indeed, the guard had just said something. To any felon who happened to be paying attention, the message was loud and clear. Without speaking a word, the guard said, “If I can drop a tiny, moving target out of the sky, imagine how easily I could pop open one of your heads like a ripe casaba melon if you so much as think about running away.”
Alas, this communique is lost on Luke (Paul Newman), as are most attempts by the camp to instill in him a sense of order.
Yes, there are many rules at the prison camp. As another guard barks in the beginning, there are rules about what to do with your soda bottles, rules about how you can smoke, rules about what time to go to bed, rules about this and that. As an audience member, you lose track of all the rules and start to think if you were there, you might want to check with someone to find out what the rule is on sneezing before you sneeze.
On top of that, the prisoners have their own rules and codes on how to deal with one another. Once the guards leave them on their own for the evening, Dragline (a young, lean George Kennedy who really surprised me because as a Gen Xer, I thought his life started as Frank’s sidekick in “The Naked Gun,” the top dog in camp until Luke comes along, lays out all the rules he expects to be followed.
It’s never outwardly said, and amazingly, most core themes in this film are not openly said, but it’s clear just from the look on Luke’s face that he is laughing at these rubes for living such a sad, boring, highly regulated life.
From the start of the film, it’s also clear that Luke has no plan in life. Perhaps that’s just as well as God tends to laugh at people who do. At any rate, when he’s caught twisting the heads off of parking meters with a wrench for no apparent reason other than when he was drunk, it seemed like a fun thing to do, he doesn’t cower when the police come, but laughs and smiles and he continues to smile in the face of authority for much of the film, unable to take their attempts to bark commands at him seriously.
No, Luke doesn’t have a plan and as one scene communicates, if life is a card game then Luke’s hand is nothing. Even so, Luke plays that hand well as he is a master bluffer., convincing his fellow inmates that he’s got four aces when in reality, he’s got zilch.
Dragline, who goes from being Luke’s biggest critic to his almost slavishly devoted lapdog, learns this when, during a boxing match, he pounds away on Luke. Luke, near death, has zero boxing ability and no plan to win, but based purely on sheer will, keeps getting up again, only to keep getting pounded back to the ground again.
Will you ever serve time in a prison labor camp? Hopefully not, but the lesson is easily transferred to normal life. We’re all told to have a plan. Plan this. Plan that. We can’t plan for the unexpected curveballs that punch us with the force of Dragline’s fist. All we can do is take the beating, fall down, and get back up again. Hell, Dragline was teaching us this before Rocky did. Who knew?
Indeed, the incarcerated mooks live downtrodden lives, and Luke’s various acts of insubordination bring them great joy, so much so that they start to live vicariously through him. When he eats 50 eggs on a dare, he wins the challenge but then falls into a Jesus pose with his arms stretched out on the table. Heavy handed imagery to be sure, but the point is that Luke could just as easily keep his nose down, do his time and be out in two years, but instead, he’s becoming a martyring himself, ruining his body and chance for freedom just so these dopes can have fun watching him doing things they are too frightened to do.
If you think about it, we all like to pretend that we are virtuous, moral people but truth be told, the best of us would descend into savagery if it weren’t for the legal system. The majority of us get the picture early on. We know police, courts and jails exist, so we’d better walk the straight and narrow path to avoid them. Then there are people like Dragline, who do what they want until they get caught, get sent to the prison and then faced with a world filled with rules and rifle toting guards ready to enforce them, become obedient lap dogs. The rules they refused to follow in civilian life are now stuffed down their throat with righteous fury.
Then there’s the rare case of Luke, who doesn’t get the message. SPOILER ALERT: he escapes. Again and again. And after one attempt, the hard nosed warden famously laments, “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Yes, the civilians on the outside just needed to see that cop car driving down the street to get the message that breaking the law is a bad idea. The convicts had to get their wills broken to realize that getting on a guard’s bad side is a bad idea. But Luke, as the warden notes, will need additional convincing.
I won’t go into detail but suffice to say, after each escape attempt, the warden and company go out of their way to communicate to Luke that he needs to follow the rules and well, can even the most strong willed of men be broken? I’ll let that be a surprise for you when you watch it.