Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke is not what one would expect. I sat down to watch a film about Paul Newman, the way one would want him; a disturbingly handsome man who doesn’t give a damn about anything and repeatedly rebels against the rules that are imposed on him by the rural prison he’s been sentenced to doing time. Perhaps a man with an attitude that is cool enough to get him through the hardships, if not save him from them entirely. A man who breaks hearts, who other men look up to and who feeds off this attention and strolls through life effortlessly – even as a prisoner. Yes, that’s exactly the film I was prepared to watch – and I would have, if it weren’t for the filmmakers having something entirely different to say. Something that slowly but steadily creeps up to us; and when is finally revealed, leaves us astounded.
Adapted from Donn Pearce’s novel, Cool Hand Luke is not the story of a cool, heroic figure that stands up to The Man. It’s the story of a man who won’t be a stereotype; an image; a hero. It’s the story of a man who fights being a lead and who stands up against those who want to be led; his so-called friends; those who won’t stop cheering for him. They need him to be an idol – but he will only live for himself. Desperate to escape their prison, they’ve chosen to do it through him; and they demand not to be let down; to be entertained; to have someone to worship. In the end, it seems as though Cool Hand Luke is not so much tortured by The Boss, but his fellow prisoners. And indeed no boss would insist on breaking a man if his yielding didn’t set a universal example.
Paul Newman’s Luke becomes a symbol for both guards and inmates. He’s the unruffled outlaw who won’t back down – triggering just as much admiration as anger and envy. It becomes a desperate need to break him, for everyone included. If Luke stops fighting, there is nothing left for his inmates; but if he keeps going, there is nothing left for The Boss. And this is how after a long first half of setting an exhaustingly hostile atmosphere and getting to know all the villains – as there is really nobody to esteem in Cool Hand Luke — filmmakers Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson and Stuart Rosenberg start making it all the more obvious that Luke is not the cool guy above the rules, but instead the tragic figure caught in the middle of them.
Right in between gutless prisoners and power-thirsty captains lies Cool Hand Luke. A name, really, that he’s been given in order to carry on performing for them. A euphemism that will allow them to play him around like an action figure and keep throwing him from one side to another like a ball – while some win and some lose. But, it’s the game that matters. For there is not much else to do around here. And so the only fairly decent person in Rosenberg’s film becomes an experiment, someone we love to worship and hate, build up and break down. An icon, for our own amusement.
“Stop beatin’ it. Get out there yourself. Stop feedin’ off me. Get out of here. I can’t breathe. Give me some air.” When Luke finally protests against the persona he has been forced to play, the realisation that Cool Hand Luke is a film with a unique message hits us. Donn Pearce and Stuart Rosenberg tick all the usual cool-hero-movie boxes, and put the man of all men, Paul Newman, in the lead, to trick everyone into thinking we’ll get a standard big studio blockbuster, and two easy-pleasing hours. But instead, they deliver a film carrying an unexpectedly significant purpose and a hero who hates us all. He would kill us, if he could, as we don’t let him breathe. Give him some air.