Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 14: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Cool Hand Luke (1967) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 93 of the first edition hardback, Ebert recalls eating 26 raw eggs in order to win a contest during his college fraternity’s Hell Week, likening it to the egg-eating binge in Cool Hand Luke. His prize was a night of sleep.

What Ebert had to say in his reviews: “The movie hero used to be an inspiration, but recently he has become a substitute. We no longer want to be heroes ourselves, but we want to know that heroes are on the job in case we ever need one. This has resulted in an interesting flip-flop of stereotypes. Used to be the anti-hero was a bad guy we secretly liked. Then, with Brando, we got a bad guy we didn’t like. An now, in ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ we get a good guy who becomes a bad guy because he doesn’t like us. Luke is the first Newman character to understand himself well enough to tell us to shove off. He’s through risking his neck to make us happy.” -from his 1967 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“Luke calls out to God at the end: ‘It’s beginnin’ to look like you got things fixed so I can’t never win out. Inside, outside, all them rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am. Just where am I supposed to fit in? Ol’ Man, I gotta tell ya. I started out pretty strong and fast. But it’s beginnin’ to get to me. When does it end?’ He gets his answer quickly enough, but what other answer could he have expected? The problem between Luke and God is nothing more than a failure to communicate. Having seen this powerful, punishing movie again freshly, I reflect than in 1967 I didn’t approach it with the proper pessimism. Today, it seems to be God does a fairly good job of getting his message across.” -from his 2008 review for his Great Movies series

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There’s a stubborn, tough as nails brand of masculinity that drips from every frame in Cool Hand Luke (sometimes literally, in the form of sweat) that I have a tough time connecting with. Paul Newman’s performance as the titular Luke injects young Brando bravado into a grown man’s physique (instead of whatever bizarre monster Brando himself evolved to become). Luke’s life imprisoned on a chain gang knows little tenderness as he struggles to stay strong in the face of knee-buckling manual labor & abusive authority. Just about the only thing I can relate to in Luke’s life is the oppressive sweat & dehydration leveled on him by the hellish Southern heat. The cigar chomping, shower fighting, smack talking, backyard boxing, poker game bluffing world that contains Luke’s prison sentence (imposed on him for robbing parking meters while blind drunk) are about as foreign to me as a Martian landscape or the lost city of Atlantis. Still, there’s a few touches of religious epiphany, delirious absurdism, pitch black nihilism, and political rebellion that manage to break through this chiseled veneer of braggadocio to reveal the the film has a lot more on its mind than just being the toughest guy in the room.

It’s easy to point out the moments when Cool Hand Luke reveals its hand & lets down the hyper-masculine guard to reveal something vulnerable underneath. A scene where Luke beautifully plays “Plastic Jesus” on a banjo to mourn his mother’s death comes to mind, as does a sequence where the chain gang feverishly digs a ditch while ogling a woman in a sundress who makes a show out of washing her car. That latter moment in particular reaches some bizarre, Russ Meyer-esque territory that plays onscreen like a live action cartoon. What really stands out as the film’s centerpiece, though, is a sequence in which Luke settles a bet by eating 50 hard-boiled eggs in a single sitting (50!). So much time & care goes into the egg-eating sequence that it completely shifts the course of the prison-life drama that precedes it. It initially amuses, then disgusts, then reaches some kind of transcendent religious sanctity that’s difficult to describe in words. After settling his egg-eating bet, Luke is laid out shirtless, bloated, and mimicking the stretched-out pose of Christ’s crucifixion. He is near death in his egg-stuffed state, but he emerges as a makeshift messiah in the eyes of the other prisoners (including a baby faced Dennis Hopper & Harry Dean Stanton among them) once he resurrects. It’s amazing that the film can turn something so seemingly trivial into something so essentially pivotal.

So much changes after the egg feast that Cool Hand Luke starts to feel like an entirely different movie. Instead of sizing each other up & jockeying for dominance, the prisoners form a tight camaraderie centered around their new, egg-chomping christ. Luke’s biggest bully (played with gusto by old-timer George Kennedy) in particular falls deeply, madly in love with him, calling him things like “my baby” and a “wild, beautiful thing.” They also rally around Luke when he’s unfairly locked in solitary confinement & subsequently makes several failed attempts to escape chain gang imprisonment. The strange thing about Luke’s deification is that he is far from messiah material. There’s no real rhyme or reason to his crimes or his stubborn defiance. He was arrested for getting drunk & destroying property. He takes delight in being a “crazy handful of nothing”, declaring that during a poker game, “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.” There’s an emptiness & a nihilism to Luke’s refusal to genuinely engage with life in any significant way & when his fellow prisoners find a religious epiphany & devotion in that idea it plays as remarkably sad. It’s all over something as meaningless as a few dozen eggs.

There’s enough religious imagery & visual symbolism (including focus on signs that read things like “STOP” & “VIOLATION”) in Cool Hand Luke that it’s really tempting to read into its overall metaphor. You can can see Ebert’s struggle to nail down its exact meaning himself over the course of his two reviews, flipflopping between how Luke’s attitude & the film’s overall brutality are meant to be read. I think Ebert got closest when he called the film an “anti-establishment” work of rebellion. I don’t think reading any specific metaphors into its stance on the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights movement of the time would reveal anything more than a general disgust for authority & abuse of power, though. It’s “anti-establishment” in the same way that its contemporary Bonnie & Clyde was, except with a crucial difference in philosophy. Bonnie & Clyde felt wildly, dangerously celebratory in its displays of open rebellion, but Cool Hand Luke is decidedly empty, meaningless, a monument to nothing. You can see its cold, nihilistic view of the world reflected in the aviators of “The Man With No Eyes,” an especially cruel prison guard who serves as the film’s de facto Grim Reaper. You can see it in the way Luke lets down the prisoners who gave him all of their love & religious devotion in exchange for a big fat nothing. Perhaps the reason I “had a failure to communicate” with Cool Hand Luke‘s hyper macho posturing in the early scenes is that I read it as a glorification, a tribute to something to believe in. Once I realized the film believes in nothing at all –religion, masculinity, or otherwise– I was fully on board. Fifty hard-boiled eggs & a frivolous bet was all it took me to get there.

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Roger’s Rating : (4/4, 100%)

fourstar

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: Citizen Kane (1941)

-Brandon Ledet

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One thought on “Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 14: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

  1. Pingback: Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 16: From Russia with Love (1963) | Swampflix

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