Cool Hand Luke is a classic prison set film made during the pinnacle of American cinema, focusing on a former soldier who is sent to jail for taking the heads off of parking meters, and his constant refusal to submit to the system that holds him. Since the motion picture was released in American cinema’s in 1967, there has been a constant debate with audiences and critics alike as to what the meaning of it all is? Is the film an allegorical story, with the Christian symbolism constantly surrounding the messianic figure of Luke? Is it a message about the unfair and cruel nature of the American justice system? Is it reflective of the anti-establishment movement in America at the time, having being shot during the Vietnam War? Or is it simply a message about the inherently fragile nature of the American Dream?
No matter what the deeper meaning really is, at its heart the film is an exploration of prison camaraderie and brotherhood, particularly in showing the change from a bitter rivalry to genuine friendship between the two lead characters; the rebellious newcomer Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) and the hardened prisoner Frank Dragline (in an Oscar winning turn by George Kennedy). This shift in dynamic between the two is perhaps best explored in this iconic scene in the film; a boxing match between Frank and Luke. This scene also really manages to highlight the mantra and ideology of the transgressive Luke character.
When Luke arrives at the Florida prison as a new inmate he quickly proves that he isn’t going to observe the social pecking order that is in place. This leads him to run afoul with Frank Dragline, the established leader of the prisoners. To resolve their differences and in a vain attempt by Dragline to teach Luke his place in the hierarchy, the two have a boxing match in the prison grounds, witnessed by the wardens and the other prisoners. Whilst severely outmatched by the much larger Dragline, Luke keeps getting up, refusing to back down. Whilst the onlookers initially cheer and laugh, this eventually turns into worry and fear as Luke refuses to stay down, as he is repeatedly knocked to the floor. Several prisoners yell at him to stay down, but he just keeps standing back up.
After barely being able to stand anymore, Dragline warns Luke to “stay down, you’re beat” to which Luke replies that Dragline will have to kill him before he gives up. Dragline then leaves the ring, making Luke the winner by default and also earning him the respect of the other prisoners due to his tenacity and unwillingness to surrender. This comes into play later, when Luke wins a poker game despite having a “whole handful of nothin'”. Luke replies that sometimes “Nothin’ can be a real cool hand”, earning him the nickname Cool Hand Luke and assuring Draglines respect and friendship. Pre-dating The Shawshank Redemption by almost 30 years, this film really emphasises the many aspects of prison life in all its grim detail, whilst still emphasising the brotherhood between the inmates.
On 5th September 2016, Warner Bros UK. launches the Iconic Moments Collection, a beautifully matching packaged set of 22 standout titles celebrating the breadth of their catalogue.