Year Released: 1967
Directed by: Stuart Rosenberg
Starring: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet
(Not Rated, 127 min.)
Academy Awards (1967)
Actor in a Supporting Role: George Kennedy
"It is not rebellion itself which is noble but the demands it makes upon us." Albert Camus
Paul Newman fills the screen by trying not to in this tale of a likeable yet self-destructive rebel. Cool Hand Luke is about finding joy when you can, courage when you must, and integrity when nothing else is left.
Set in the South just after World War II, the film is also infused with the rebellious spirit of the 1960s, when it was made. Paul Newman is a decorated war hero, but he has left the service as he has come in, as a buck private. That says it all – he’s a man of courage but not one to march to anyone’s tune.
Arrested for cutting off the heads of parking meters with a pipe wrench, Luke is sentenced to two years in the chain gang. His only explanation for his conduct is “I guess you could say I wasn’t thinking.” As for his failure to rise in the service in spite of his heroism? “I was just passin’ the time.”
So while our intellectual friends like Sartre and Camus are discussing existential concepts such as alienation, disregard of the rational, and man’s meaningless struggle in their cozy cafes, somewhere in the bowels of Georgia an ill-bred American is actually living it. If living is what you call toiling daily in the hot sun under the trained eyes and rifles of the casually sadistic guards.
But the hard work is not really the problem. Luke can handle that just fine. In fact, in one of best scenes he actually turns the toil into a purposeful act of joy by his sheer will. It is a scene reminiscent of the tar pits in the eighth circle of Dante’s Inferno, where cheaters and swindlers are kept in boiling pitch by demons who hook any that dare rise to the surface. Under the blistering sun and the demon-like stares of the gang bosses, the crew works to tar a road. Boss convict, Dragline, (George Kennedy in his Oscar winning performance) cautions Luke to work slower, to save himself for the long day’s labor. Instead, Luke begins to shovel faster, and somehow everyone rises to the challenge as sand flies onto the tarred patch of road, the crew keeping up with the inhuman tar machine, and just a few steps ahead of the boss that walks behind with his rifle. They finish two hours early.
Dragline: Where'd the road go?
Luke: That's it. That's the end of it.
Convict: Man, there's still daylight.
Dragline: About two hours left.
Convict: What do we do now?
Dragline: Oh Luke, you wild, beautiful thing. You crazy handful of
Three other memorable scenes mark the lighter first half of the film. One is a car wash scene that makes Paris Hilton’s romp pale by comparison – not in skin shown but in sheer underlying sensuality. Luke knows the lovely thing who just happens to decide to wash her car within viewing range of the chain gang is getting great joy by tormenting them with her show, and he tells Dragline to stop going on about it that night in the sweltering bunk room. Dragline gets his revenge for this insult the next day when he challenges the much smaller man to a boxing match. Bloodied but unbowed, Luke will not give up, and finally Dragline walks away. The third scene is the poker game where Luke earns his name. Tossing money into the pot with a casual arrogance, his head and eyes facing straight forward while he hands the ante off to the side, Luke convinces everyone he has a handful of kings. In fact, he has earned the jackpot with a handful of nothing, but “Sometimes nothin’ can be a real cool hand.”
One of the few times Luke does tip his hand is when he has an unexpected visit from his mother, fitted up in an improvised bed in the back of a pickup truck like some refugee from a Faulkner novel. She alternately coughs and smokes through the entire interview, and says, not with cruelty, although it may sound like such, that she wishes she were like a bitch who could no longer recognize her pups, so she would have no hopes nor love to give her pain. Later, when Luke is informed of her death, he takes it hard. But what is even harder is the Captain’s action in such cases. He reasons that Luke is going to be tempted to escape to attend his mother’s funeral, and to ward that off, he puts him in “the box," a kind of crude form of solitary confinement, Hanoi Hilton style.
When Luke comes out, he is not the same, and his daring escapes and flirtations with freedom, although of great delight to the admiring fellow prisoners, become a desperate escalation of risk and retribution that we know will not end well. But it is not where and how he ends up that concerns us; it is the style and grit of this man with a handful of nothing that keeps us watching. Somehow we still hope that he has a handful of aces.
To many the most memorable scene in Cool Hand Luke is the egg eating contest. It provides some comic relief to prepare us for the more grim scenes that will follow as well as grist for those who see Luke as a Christ figure.
In one of his more whimsical moments, Luke affirms that he can eat fifty eggs in an hour, and of course, the bets are on. Someone objects when Dragline sets about peeling their shells, saying it was assumed that Luke would have to peel them himself. Dragline, who is unable to read, reminds us of Stanley Kowalski as he recited the legal implications of the Napoleonic code. “In the law, nothing is assumed,” he counters.
It is right down to the line, but somehow the spare Luke manages to consume all fifty eggs. Exhausted, he lies down on a bench, hands askew and legs crossed at the ankles in a picture perfect replication of Christ’s posture on the cross.
Since some critics see the fifty eggs representing the collective sins of the fifty inmates, which Luke takes upon himself, it is not such a reach then, for us to see these plain boiled orbs prepared as deviled eggs. And anyway, they are a lot more tasty. But no contests, please. Stop yourself at a dozen.
Easy Deviled Eggs
6 hard cooked eggs
1/4 c. mayonnaise
1 tbsp. sweet pickle relish
1 tsp. vinegar
1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. dry mustard
Slice eggs in half lengthwise and carefully remove yolks. Mash yolks with mayonnaise. Add remaining ingredients except paprika. Stir well. Stuff egg whites with yolk mixture. Garnish eggs with paprika. Yield: 6 to 8 servings.
Recipe Source: Cooks.com