Here is a movie that regrettably sat on my shelf untouched, never opened, for at least a year or so. The story goes, I got the movie from my grandmother when I was going into college. The film immediately was given its place holding up the other opened, watched movies. My grandmother says this was one of her favorites, and not until I saw the movie could I understand why. We had a failure to communicate. Cool Hand Luke is a truly grand movie from the 1960s era, made specifically in 1967. And, forty plus years later the movie still speaks a relevant film language. The symbols in this film go beyond the dissolution of time and come out unharmed and still potent in whatever era you are viewing.
Cool Hand Luke, as his title may suggest, has many great symbols that attract the viewer. The connections the viewer might have to the events in Luke’s life will only be furthered in dramatic value by including symbolic language. Creating multiple layers for the viewer to follow makes them feel smart, and engaged to the narrative. To give an example of a heavy symbolic scene, I would suggest the first frames of the film. The word, “Violation”, surrounded by red, fills the screen, and it repeats, over and over. Wider now, we see it is a parking meter that is past due. Luke begins to saw off the meter polls. Snapping the parking meter’s head off, coins fall to the street. Luke continues to hydrate on rye and repeats his beheading of parking meters all the way down the street, rows of parking meters behind him are now gone. Society’s friends, the police come upon good ol’ Luke, drunk beyond speaking ability with tons of destroyed parking meters surrounding him. This is a great opening scene on its own, but the opening action tells us the symbolic tone of this man. (Also free parking, who doesn’t love that?) The opening frame, of “Violation”, the viewer is faced with this word without knowing why? What is it coming from? The only thing the viewer really knows is what “Violation” in that context means to them. Thus the film demands on the first frame that viewers use their own symbol system to understand. The viewer has established how they feel about the word in front of them moments before they meet the protagonists, Luke, who is, literally breaking that word to the ground.
This Film has many symbolic scenes but even more objects that are symbols in their own right. These objects that are now directly linked to the narrative, act as another voice for the viewer. I will skip to a scene much later to show my favorite use of a symbolic object or prop in this film, the Banjo. Luke’s mother comes to visit him in prison in very poor physical condition. She has so much love for Luke but is giving the house to his brother. Luke doesn’t care, but seems pleased with his end of the will, a Banjo. Flash forward, Luke is locked up and news comes that his Mom has passed on. This sets up a beautiful scene where Paul Newman shows the glory of his ability as an actor, by singing a folk song while playing the banjo from his mother. He is isolated from the rest of the prisoners, facing the wall crying. Paul Newman doesn’t sing nor play the banjo, but in this scene he does both while giving a hell of an acting performance. The real playing and singing of Paul Newman makes this scene, because it is real. This feels so real you feel bad for staring you find yourself wanting to stand with the other prisoners, giving Luke his space. But, thank goodness you can’t look away, as you get to stay with Luke throughout this ordeal. (To see how he feels, how he reacts, and how we see the banjo now.) This is something I have seen in movies before, and I believe the banjo represents family in the southern microcosms of North America films. And, in Cool Hand Luke the banjo clearly helps Luke connect to his mother, as in a much more current example Winter’s Bone uses Ree’s dad’s banjo being discovered in the closet as that characters tie to her father, and allows her to have a sentimental moment just thinking of her father, holding his banjo, and revel her uncovered self. I think symbolism often works well as a tool for the viewer to unmask, discover the character. Cool Hand Luke establishes that connection of character honesty through symbol use very well, as well as makes me want to learn banjo.
If the reader is not already clear, Paul Newman as Luke is a great character, but one great character doesn’t make a great movie. However, characters that resonate honesty by acting true to the situation and the symbol in which their character represents of the scene gets pretty damn close. Cool Hand Luke has a cast of characters built off of the symbolic tone of the individual characters voice and mannerisms. All of these individual voices create a chorus for the rural south. We are able to distinguish where we are just off the cast of characters, who work as symbols for the story in their own right. The Captain is a Southern, porch sitting, newspaper-reading type who creates the mirage of intelligence. However at the same time, this man runs a prison, locks people away in the box for days, and orders the beating of certain inmates who don’t have their minds right. This Captain’s character has great duality in his actions and words throughout this film, which makes him a clear pivotal character, forcing the change in Luke, and at the end allowing Luke to die, to prove his point. The first time the Captain is introducing himself he says he can be one mean son of a bitch, and he certainly proves that by the end of the film.
The supporting role to Luke is Dragline, played truly authentically by George Kennedy. Dragline was in prison when Luke came in, and Dragline remains in prison long after Luke is gone. At first he is the antagonist force against Luke, however once Luke proves he wouldn’t break, what breaks is Dragline’s facade. After this confrontation they become best of friends, helping each other out, hustling other prisoners, finding joy in the rough workday together, with their yehaww’s and horay’s from the men that are supposed to be dreading tarring a road. Dragline kept Luke sane while he was in prison and helped him escape when Luke thought it was time. Regardless if Luke ever actually got free, the reality of the relationship between Luke and Dragline and what they do for each other and how they respect one another feels very authentic to how a prison friendship in this time might go. This authentic pairing creates quite a symbolic short hand For Luke and Dragline’s relationship, Prison friendship. By the end of the film, Dragline has gone from the biggest meanest dude in prison, beating the crap out of Luke, to a broken man crushed over Luke’s decision of splitting up during their prison escape. A heartbroken, Dragline agrees but is clearly not in support of the idea. He feels he is getting ditched by the self-punishing Luke, which is the kindest thing Luke thought he could do for Dragline in this situation. To get his friend, as far away from himself as possible. The climax scene is truly powerful because of Dragline. After Luke splits from Dragline he goes into a church, soon after cops have the place surround and they already caught up with Dragline and he has gone into the Church to plead with Luke to come out and play ball and they won’t kill him, Luke doesn’t believe this. Luke walks to the window to proclaim the Captains Iconic lines “What we have here is a failure to commutate” right before the man with no eyes takes a shot right to Luke’s chest, he is bleeding bad. The man with no eyes is a character that throughout the entire film is never given a name, just the symbol of his dark tone glasses, that no one can see into. This man with no eyes was the intimidating source for all the prisons on work. Dragline attacks the officer with no eyes who shot Luke, strangles him, four men must be used to get him off. This is clear action of the strength of Luke and Dragline’s friendship, even through the man who shot Luke is the man with no eyes, who has been built up as the scariest meanest officer. To Dragline all of these worries and cares fly out of the window as he attacks the man who killed his friend.
This movie was much more than I expected it to be, it has sky rocketed to one of my instant favorites that I know I will return to when I need to see someone who has it worst. All the reasons I have explored build to my conclusion of enjoying this film, however in all fairness I also do have a sweet spot in my heart for movies that use a line from the movie’s dialog as the title of the movie. In this film as Luke is caught for the second time trying to run away he is beaten badly and tossed back in the prison, where Captain gives a speech emphasizing at the climax of his speech to not be like Cool Hand Luke.