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Retro Movie Review: Cool Hand Luke

Updated on April 14, 2011

What we've got here...

"What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well he gets it. And I don't like it any more than you Men."

This iconic movie line is arguably more famous than the movie from which it came. Cool Hand Luke is a 1967 prison drama starring screen legend Paul Newman as Luke Jackson. Supporting roles came from George Kennedy as Dragline, Jo Van Fleet as Arletta (Luke's mother) and Strother Martin as the Captain who addresses his inmates with this famous speech. Many rising stars such as Dennis Hopper, Ralph Waite, Harry Dean Stanton, Clifton James and Jo Don Baker provide minor supporting roles.

Overview (spoiler alert)

Based on the 1965 novel by Donn Pearce, Cool Hand Luke depicts life in a Florida prison road work camp and the relationships of the Bosses (guards) with the motley crew of convicts, with charismatic Luke as the central character. There is much more to this film than just life on the chain gang; there are strong undercurrents of social and religious commentary.

Lucas Jackson is a decorated war veteran that is easing his way through life with little interest in conforming to the rules of society. One drunken night, Luke is caught cutting the heads off of parking meters with a pipe cutter. When the policemen confront Luke, he answers with a mumble and a chuckle and then gives his charming smile that becomes familiar sight throughout the movie. He is subsequently sentenced to 2 years of hard labor at a prison camp led by the ruthless Captain.

When Luke arrives at the prison, he is immediately barraged by rules from the Captain and the Bosses. He shows indifference towards the rules and staff with a smile. There is also heirarchy in the ranks of inmates with Dragline being the leader. The inmates are initially annoyed by Luke's indifference as well and berate him by calling him "Lucas war hero." Luke later fights with Dragline. Even though he was handily beat, he refuses to stay down.


Luke wins the admiration of his fellow inmates after winning a poker game with a "hand full of nothing." He comments that sometimes "nothing can be a real cool hand" which earns him the nickname Cool Hand Luke. One Sunday, Luke's terminally ill mother, Arletta, visits Luke and discusses a mother's pain with him. He eventually recieves news that Arletta has passed. The Captain confines Luke to "the box," a torturous solitary confinement, because he feels Luke would get "rabbit in his blood" and attempt escape to attend his mother's funeral. He does escape however he is caught, given chains and punished.

The Captain and Bosses feel that Luke is a trouble maker and make efforts to break his spirit by subjecting him to  severe and unwarranted punishment. In spite of the harsh working conditions, Luke refuses to conform and show his unbreakable spirit, all with his charming smile. In one instance, he rallies the road gang to hustle and finish paving a road in record time. In another, he wins a bet that he can eat 50 hard boiled eggs in an hour. The inmates begin to idolize Luke as his spirit has become contagious. No matter what, Luke always has "that smile."

As to not give away the entire movie and its ending, I recommend checking this classic out for yourself.

Social and Religious Elements

Most viewers will find Luke's unbreakable spirit inspirational as it was to the other characters in the film. It was released during the advent of the counter-culture revolution and Luke continuously refuses to conform the norms of the time.

Regardless of what Luke has been dealt in life, he maintains his spirit and his smile. However, there are scenes where Luke challenges God, once stating that he was never dealt a good hand. It is debatable to whether Luke believes in God or not.

It is debated as to whether that this story was an allegory to Jesus and there are some, sometimes controversial, scenes that do appear to make Biblical references. In the Bible, Luke 1:37 says "For with God nothing shall be impossible." Luke's number was 37 and throughout the story, he wins with nothing. After eating 50 boiled eggs, an engorged Luke is laid out on a table in the fashion of a crucifix. There are other shots in the film could be considered represenative of Jesus on the cross. Many believe that Luke was symbolic of Jesus and the other inmates symbolic of his disciples.

Well... What do I think?

Cool Hand Luke is one of my all-time favorite movies and Luke himself is one of my all-time favorite characters. The story line and the characters are all rich and very well developed. You will love Luke's unbreakable spirit, charm and warm sense of humor. It is a ride that will take you through a variety of emotions. You will laugh and you may very well cry. It delivers the goods and yet still leaves just enough room to contemplate and discuss the social and religious elements that are running in the background.

The film recieved several Acadamy Award nominations and George Kennedy took home an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. The American Film Institute has given the film nods in its AFI 100 Years... series.

Check out Cool Hand Luke for yourself and I think you will find it more than worthy of adding to your collection.


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    • Cogerson profile image

      UltimateMovieRankings 7 years ago from Virginia

      Great review on a great movie..there are so many great moments in the favorites being the fight with Kennedy and the scene where is mom shows up....the blu-ray version is outstanding in quality...voted up