Paul Newman was the the most pensive American film rebel and nonconformist. He didn't mumble out lines like, “What have you got?” when asked by a girl what he was rebelling against like Marlon Brando in The Wild One (1953). (Most girls would likely be asking Newman other questions in his films.) He didn't furiously, indignantly scream, “You're tearing me apart!” like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Newman played characters who knew the game called life was rigged, at least to a frightening extent. Sometimes his portrayals allowed for the character to fight back, to win just one for the good guys, most famously so in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982). Often, however, his onscreen avatars were knowing men, soused in realism and lightly-tinted weltschmerz. In The Rack (1956), the laconic Captain Edward W. Hall, Jr. shrinks in the searing shadow of his father (played by a perfectly cast Walter Pidgeon). The Rack precisely laid the cinematic groundwork for Newman, especially in terms of what to expect from the actor. He played real men. His captain broke when tortured. His heroism was confined to the ennui of the real world. He felt shame, yes, and regret, but also, bewilderment. Not too much in the way of evinced self-pity, but a profound recognition of the fundamental unfairness of life. His Billy the Kid in Arthur Penn's The Left Handed Gun (1958) was a tumultuous, scary and choleric individual, a man ostensibly stuck in a kind of perpetual adolescence, a man made violent by the overwhelming dearth of sorrow attached to the more miserable aspects of life. Newman's characters had a certain cognoscitive capability, a way of burrowing into truths while beaming at the opportunity to miss whatever apparent lesson that was to be had. And his anti-heroicism had to have a certain blistering quality at the time his latest picture was released. That quality, however, was usually blanketed in a kind of disarming humor. The most obvious example would have to be Newman's Butch Cassidy in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969). Newman's Butch simply kicked an adversary between the legs because that seemed the most effective manner of combat. Newman could play an outright heel, however. His portrait of Hud (1963) was a performance forged by dualistic factualities concerning the fate of his younger brother. Hud knew he was a bastard, and he knew his little brother's infatuation with him was disastrous, so he did everything he possibly could to disenchant his sibling.
The transitional performance, and perhaps the transitional film, was Cool Hand Luke (1967). If Newman was in certain ways, a kind of glamorous, graceful and gorgeous Humphrey Bogart (the 1966 private-eye picture Harper helps to invite such a comparison), then Cool Hand Luke is the film in which he powerfully transcended his own fictive personality, in a way that does remind one of Bogart's exterior hardness and apathetic callousness mutating into an almost messianic selflessness before the conclusion of Casablanca. In each case, an iconic cinematic statement about the nature of rebellion, and nonconformity, was made. And messianic is a truer adjective with regards to Cool Hand Luke, a film that openly wears its Christ allegory out in the open. 1967 brought forth such a virulent rebelliousness, exhibited in untamed performances of wild people, such as Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Point Blank, Hombre (another Newman picture, about a white man raised by American Indians charged with protecting ungrateful, racist whites), Tony Rome, The Dirty Dozen, Who's That Knocking at My Door, Hour of the Gun and Don't Look Back. Other examples would soon follow, such as Easy Rider.
Cool Hand Luke stars Paul Newman as Luke, a World War II veteran who for no particular reason starts lopping off the heads of parking meters one night in a small Southern town. He finds himself serving two years on a chain gang for his “chewing up of municipal property.” The film was shot just north of Stockton, California, but somehow cinematographer Conrad Hall evokes a Southern warmth and verity, shooting golden landscapes in a manner that today seems intangibly linked to Burnett Guffey's lensing of the same year's Bonnie and Clyde. Directed by Stuart Rosenberg, and with a screenplay written by Donn Pearce, who wrote the novel, and Frank Pierson, the film is most pointedly a Christ allegory. Given the importantly Christian name of Luke, with the number “37” imprinted on his prison uniform (Luke 1:37: “For with God nothing shall be impossible,” a point with which the film thematically wrestles), Newman's character is a challenging, involving modification of Christ.
Luke quickly stands out as the “fresh meat,” and like Christ, is feasted upon by those who love him, metaphorically and physically. George Kennedy's Dragline is the king in the prison hierarchy, and resents Luke's inability to be subservient. A sanctioned fight between the two impressively demonstrates the role of the martyr Newman's Luke will inhabit in this drama, as he is beaten down by the imposing and powerful Dragline. However, Luke is victorious in defeat, as he is simply unwilling to lay down and admit to his loss. He earns the respect of everyone, most emphatically Dragline, who becomes his primary booster and fan. Later, Luke wagers that he can eat fifty eggs in one hour, something few believe is possible. He goes through a grueling regimen to increase space in his stomach for a little while with Dragline as his manager. He sits on his bunk with a towel draped over his head, in an image that recalls Christ's musty, bloodstained countenance pressed in the shroud. The bet's anagogical and numinous subtext becomes almost embarrassingly plain when probed, manifesting the film's innermost concerns. There are fifty inmates at Luke's prison. Eggs representing Easter, the celebration of Christ's resurrection, Luke's consumption of fifty eggs draws the New Testament's crucial description of Christ absorbing the sins of the world (and in this manner, the last egg, which nearly costs him to lose his bet, could be interpreted as his own, which just barely manages to succumb to his ingestive endeavor. After going through with his own personal experiment and becoming just barely triumphant, as the prisoners who watched for an hour like the spectacle was the greatest sporting event they had ever witnessed, disperse, Luke is left alone, the prison's martyr, its hope, its source of strength for all of the inmates. Carefully, the scene concludes with Luke stretched out, Christlike, his arms and legs positioned in a manner that cannot help but stir imagery derived from Christian art of the figure of the crucified Christ.
What Cool Hand Luke represents most is the exaltation of the bullheaded, stubborn anti-conformist, the man Newman had played before in sundry incarnations and temperaments, the transcendence of that personage into a kind of figure of adoration and inspiration for the beaten down and oppressed. Mutual alienation spawns respect and love. A loner finds unusual uncommon cause, something he could not find in the military. The Captain, played to imperious perfection by Strother Martin, notes the success Luke found in the war. Luke became a Sergeant and accumulated a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and at least a couple of Purple Hearts, but he exited as a “Buck Private,” just as he entered. “I was just passin' time, Captain,” Luke unapologetically explains. Naturally, Luke's fierce individualism clashes almost instantly with the asphyxiating and smothering obtruding “rules and regulations,” as he says to Dragline. Jo Van Fleet has a small but important part as Luke's mother, who wishes that she could somehow share the attributes of a dog. “You know, sometimes I wish, people was like dogs, Luke. Comes a time, a day like, when the bitch just don't recognize the pups no more, so she don't have no hopes nor love to give her pain. She just don't give a damn.”
Luke's doubts about God are made fascinatingly, metaphorically symbolical illustrations of the worst, most tortured and spiritually agonizing moments of Christ. As they work the road, and it begins to rain, Luke openly questions whether or not God has any substantial power over nature and his life. “Knock it off, Luke,” Dragline admonishes. “You can't talk about Him that way.” As the inmates must address the “masters” as “boss,” Luke interestingly refers to God as the ultimate “boss”: “Are you still believin' in that big bearded Boss up there? Ya think He's watchin' us?” As Luke allows the rain to freely wash over him, cleansing him as he looks skyward, his words echo the indomitable outlook of Christ after Dragline asks what may be the most pointed question in the film, “Aren't you scared of dyin'?” “Dyin'? Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to. Ya hear that? Are ya hearin' it? Come on. You're welcome to it, old-timer. Let me know You're up there. Come on. Love me, hate me, kill me, anything. Just let me know it... I'm just standin' in the rain talkin' to myself.”
Immediately after hearing about the death of his mother, Luke plays his banjo and sings a stinging, emotionally devastating parody of the coarse pop gospel song, “Plastic Jesus,” singing:
“Well, I don't care if it rains or freezes, long as I got my plastic Jesus, sittin' on the dashboard of my car.
Comes in colors, pink and pleasant, glows in the dark cause it's iridescent Take it with you when you travel far.
Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones sittin' on a pedestal of abalone shell
Goin' ninety, I ain't scary (rather than 'wary'), 'cause I've got the Virgin Mary, assurin' me that I won't go to Hell.
Get yourself a sweet Madonna, dressed in rhinestones sittin' on a pedestal of abalone shell
Goin' ninety, I ain't scary, 'cause I've got the Virgin Mary, assurin' me that I won't go to Hell.”
Cool Hand Luke is a film of a certain ravishing poignancy, and possesses a deeper sociopolitical message with a portrayal of religious transmogrification without being sententious. Late in the film, Luke asks for God to speak to him in His house, a church, as he is seemingly cornered by enemies after he has gone on the run one too many times. The answer is twofold, and differing in meaning depending on what matters most to the reader of the lesson (whether in the Bible or Cool Hand Luke). What ultimately concludes the picture, however, is the visage of Dragline telling the inmates all about the beauty of the man behind the asperity of his disposition. That was most markedly visible due to Luke's—Newman's—magnificent smile. Unlike Bogart or Brando, Newman's beaming grin was a nearly irresistible beckoning of the viewer to join in on his fun, to partake in the scrappy, roguish charm the man radiated so tremendously.
Describing the last time he saw Luke, Dragline notes, “He was smiling... That's right. You know, that... that Luke smile of his. He had it on his face right to the very end. Hell, if they didn't know it 'fore, they could tell right then that they weren't gonna a-beat 'im. That old Luke smile. Old Luke, he was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker.”