Wars and Windmills

12 May 2012

A Real Cool Hand

I was asked the other day what my favorite movie was.

This is a notoriously difficult question, as many of you know. There is so much that goes into a question like that: pure entertainment value, artistic merit, technical prowess. All three criteria have lists of their own, so which one do I pick?

My go-to answer, if I am in no mood to really think is Empire Strikes Back. It is deserving of the honor of favorite, and aside from the fact that the film is deep in my blood, and that it really fits into all three of those categories, I a still flirt with the notion that I shouldn't be so myopic. So, to help me answer this question I am turning to this blog in hopes that as I write about my favorite films I will be more able to clearly articulate why I love each film in my top 5, or even top 10 (if I am feeling ambitious...though I rarely am).

First and foremost, when I am being honest and when I really sit down and stew over the query, I come again and again to Stewart Rosenberg's 1967 Cool Hand Luke. It hasn't moved from the top 5 since I saw it almost 10 years ago.

And here's why:

[Spoilers follow]


The film tells the story of Luke Jackson, imprisoned for "maliciously destroying municipal property" by cutting the heads off parking meters. The very first word and image of the film is VIOLATION.

Luke is thus arrested and sent to a work camp in Florida, where he becomes, in effect, part of the country's emerging national transportation infrastructure, paving rural roads through the Florida swamp.

He is immediately introduced to a new set of limitations. "We got all kinds," the camp warden announces, referring to the prisoners kept behind fences there in the subtropical heat; but all of them have had to learn how to stay put. To this, the warden adds, "in case you get rabbit in your blood and you decide to take off for home," you'll be rewarded with more time in prison and a "set of leg chains to keep you slowed down just a little bit, for your own good. You'll learn the rules."

Later, Luke meets the camp's "floorwalker," a man who keeps watch over the prisoners' boarding house; the floorwalker unloads an absurd and seemingly endless monologue about how the prisoners can avoid spending "a night in the box," a small building the size of an outhouse with no pretenses of comfort or hygiene. The list of steps by which to avoid this fate—involving everything from laundry to yard tools—is mind-numbing and absolutely impossible to remember.

When the rest of the camp comes back inside to shower and meet these newly arrived state captives, tension between Luke and the existing group's ostensible leader, nicknamed Dragline, is established immediately. "You don't listen much—do you, boy?" Dragline growls, mistaking his own corpulence for an ability to intimidate. Luke barely looks at him in return. "I ain't heard that much worth listening to," he mutters. "Just a lot of guys laying down a lot of rules and regulations."

As such, the film offers an interesting mix of, on the one hand, the surreal impossibility of reasoning with the state and its hired representatives (similar, say, to the writings of Franz Kafka); and, on the other, what seems to be a particularly American breed of libertarianism, one in which even parking meters can be interpreted as "just a lot of guys laying down a lot of rules and regulations," where all instances of authority are meant to be, if not resisted, than at least publicly mocked and undercut. 


As we'll see—and this post contains spoilers, for those of you who haven't seen the film yet—Cool Hand Luke becomes a kind of Trial-like cautionary tale, suggesting that the end result of playfully antagonizing the state can often be repression or death.

So Luke, a nonviolent offender, is sent off to pave roads in the heat, clearing weeds and snakes, and otherwise maintaining national infrastructure alongside others in his imprisoned crew. They are, in a sense, tragically ensnared in the geographic project of the state, which seeks to expand ceaselessly into underserved rural areas by means of convict-facilitated construction projects. And thus the nation—brutally, physically, literally—is made.


Aside from the argument that Luke is a Christ figure and that is all (a discussion that I will address later) it is this relentless growth of the well-policed roadway is perhaps the film's central motif—even above the film's admittedly more entertaining scenes, such as Luke living up to his own challenge of eating 50 hard-boiled eggs. For instance, in one scene where a particularly manic Luke successfully challenges the rest of his crew to treat the day's road-paving assignment like a race, they're left confused and dumbfounded when the tar truck drives away. The inmates are left staring at a STOP sign. "Where'd the road go?" an exasperated Dragline asks, as if they're now faced with doing nothing.

But that's precisely it: the only thing left to do is nothing. This recalls how Luke gets his nickname—"Cool Hand Luke"—by bluffing his way to victory in a poker game, holding a hand "full of nothing."

In any case, Luke responds by laughing at the idiocy of the entire situation. They ran a race against nothing and no one won.

Roads were built promising America "freedom," but in the film, they are built on the backs of literal slave labor and prisoners. Luke, meanwhile, deliberately plants himself "inside" (ironically enough by "freeing" the parking spaces, where movement is haulted), perhaps to prove to himself that the human spirit can be free regardless of walls or ownership.


Luke, of course, escapes—three times—but not once, in any long term sense, is he successful, getting hauled back to camp twice in chains.

Luke's various punishments for these attempted escapes grow in severity. Specifically, Luke first spends "a night in the box" and is then forced to dig and refill a hole in the prison yard, several times over, effectively breaking his will. At one point he is even pushed back into the hole, as if he has, all along, been digging his own grave.

 After witnessing Luke's very audible collapse, his fellow inmates refuse to speak with him after he stumbles back to the bunkhouse, as if Luke's aura of indefeasibility has been permanently smudged by this performance of desperate weakness. The "horrible and unimaginable commission" of breaking his spirit has, it seems, been accomplished.

However, Luke has one more escape in him, driving off unexpectedly in a road-servicing truck and disappearing into the parched landscape seen reflected in the mirrored sunglasses of the silent "boss" (and sharpshooter) who watches over him.

This, then, will be my final point about the film: in what is otherwise an obvious—even hackneyed—scene, played for all its poetic and metaphoric power, Luke finds himself alone in an empty church at night, unsure of where to run to next. In many ways, this is where the film's Kafka-esque themes are most clearly foregrounded, as Luke, addressing God for the second time in the film, finds himself simply speaking to empty rafters.

The church is silent, just a bunch of a wood and darkness, and Luke realizes, once and for all, that no one will be answering.

Only, here, Luke is at the receiving end of something incoherent, lumbering, deaf, and unstoppable—as if he has snapped the trip-wire of the state, becoming lethally ensnared in a system from which escapes are punishable by death, no matter how trivial the initial offense might be.

Image: Luke's apotheosis, ascending above the cross of the roadway
In any case, Cool Hand Luke is, in the end, a strangely affecting film, seemingly more tragic each time I see it, and it reminds me constantly of another favorite: Papillon.


End rant.

Begin other rant:

Now, there are those that would argue I was wrong, that the film is nothing but a Christ story. I agree that this viewing has its appeal, as well as evidence.

For example, he is a strong leader but he leads without brutality. He leads with a smile and an inner strength. As evidenced in the egg eating scene. Aside from the humorous respite it grants, Luke eats 50 eggs -- there are fifty prisoners. He's saving, protecting them from persecution. Notice the color white and where it appears. Notice the scene where the other prisoners come and eat the rice from his plate - it's The Last Supper retold.

I see this and I agree that the obvious interpretation is that Luke is a Christ. However, as Luke sings "Plastic Jesus" (an apt name, methinks) after his mother's death -- a song about a statue on a dashboard that is free on the road -- a song he sings when he is denied the chance to move. I question that this is the correct interpretation. My contention is that the Christ figure argument, in some way, is interesting but not as poignant unless seen as a part of the anti-authority argument, because really Christ was playing the same kind of game with authority that Luke is.


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