Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J. D. Cannon, Robert Drivas, Lou Antonio, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet
Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (George Kennedy)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Paul Newman), Best Adapted Screenplay (Donn Pearce, Frank Pierson), Best Music, Original Music Score (Lalo Schifrin)
SUMMARY: After drinking heavily one night, Korean War hero Lucas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) breaks a number of parking meters. For this crime, he is sentenced to two years in a Florida prison camp (essentially a chain gang). Luke instantly draws attention from both the guards and the other inmates because he refuses to respect the established authority. His dispute with the unofficial leader of the prisoners, Dragline (George Kennedy) culminates in a weekend boxing match. Virtually everyone in the camp, including the guards, watches as Luke is repeatedly knocked down by the much larger Dragline. Despite the urging of the other prisoners to stay down, Luke keeps getting back to his feet. Finally, Dragline walks away, ending the fight. Luke’s spirit and his stubborn refusal to give in endear him to the prisoners, and he and Dragline soon become close friends. Later in the day the men are playing a poker game; Luke bluffs his way to a huge win. After revealing that his hand was worth nothing, Dragline begins calling him “Cool Hand Luke”. Luke becomes the main source of entertainment for the prisoners, as well as keeping their spirits up. When he brags that he can eat fifty eggs in an hour, the camp cooks and the dormitory boss, as well as virtually every prisoner in the entire camp gets involved. Luke ultimately completes the challenge, with only a few seconds to spare. As a result, Dragline and Luke come into possession of nearly all the money in camp, and begin acting as a bank. Luke draws more attention from the guards during one particular work day: the men are tasked with repaving a road, which would usually take at least one day. Luke encourages the men to work at a breakneck pace, until all of them are shoveling sawdust at top speed. They finish the road with two hours of daylight left, a completely foreign event for the men.
One evening at camp, Luke learns that his mother has died. The Captain (Strother Martin) is afraid that Luke will try to escape to go to her funeral, so he has Luke locked in “the box.” The box is the main form of punishment in the camp: it is a small, windowless box (about the size of an outhouse) in which the prisoners are locked with only water and a bucket. Luke is locked in the box for several days, until his mother’s funeral is over. This experience causes something to snap in Luke – he comes out of the box looking for a way to escape. He begins to saw through the floorboards of the dormitory, and during a loud 4th of July celebration, he and another prisoner slip out. The other prisoner is quickly caught, but Luke makes it some distance before being captured: one of the bloodhounds tracking him actually dies after having to go through several barbed-wire fences. When he is brought back to camp, Luke is given a pair of leg irons. This doesn’t stop Luke, who makes another escape when the guards think he is relieving himself. He splits the leg irons with an axe at a nearby house, then sprinkles chili powder and curry powder all over the grounds, to confuse and incapacitate the dogs. This time, Luke is gone for several days; he sends the men a magazine from Atlanta that contains a picture of him with a woman on each arm. However, Luke is recaptured not long after; when he comes back to camp, he has been severely beaten, and is given another set of leg irons. He is then put in the box for an extended period, only coming out to eat. The other men are obsessed with the picture Luke sent, but he reveals that it was a fake that he sent to amuse them. Though they are disappointed, when Luke is forced to eat a huge portion of rice they all help him to finish it. As further punishment, Luke is made to dig a grave-sized hole in the prison yard, then fill it, then re-dig it, then fill it, etc. The other prisoners watch from the dormitory as Luke repeatedly does this, working well past the point of exhaustion. Finally, Luke breaks, and begs the guard not to hit him anymore. The Captain believes that Luke’s spirit has finally been broken, and allows him to stop digging. Before he leaves, a guard tells Luke that if he tries to escape again, he will be shot. Over the next several days, Luke really does seem to be broken, which disgusts and saddens the other men. In fact, Luke seems to become the new lackey of the guards, doing their bidding and sucking up to them at every opportunity. During one work day, the guard shoots a snapping turtle, and tells Luke to retrieve it. Luke is then told to put the turtle in the truck. However, Luke has secretly stolen the keys to all the trucks at the work site: when he goes to put the turtle in the truck, he jumps in, starts the vehicle, and takes off. Caught up in the moment, Dragline jumps on the running board of the truck and escapes, too. The two men later hide the truck and strike out on foot: that night, Luke tells Dragline that they should separate. He then goes into a small church. Not long after, Dragline walks into the church, which is lit up by searchlights and police sirens. The police captured Dragline, and have sent him into the church to talk Luke into surrendering. Instead, Luke walks to the door and mocks the Captain; one of the guards shoots him in the neck. Dragline drags him outside, then attacks the guard who shot Luke. He is eventually pulled off, and Luke is put into the back of a car. The driver intends to take Luke to the closest hospital, but the Captain tells him to take Luke to the prison hospital, which is much farther away – he knows that Luke’s survival depends on quick medical care. Sometime later, the chain gang is working near the church where Luke was shot. Dragline is wearing leg irons, and the head guard has been replaced. As the men work, they reminisce about Luke and his antics.
MY TAKE: This was the first Paul Newman movie I ever saw, and I immediately adored him. He has an absolutely infectious smile, coupled with a very nice face; he also has a great spirit in the movie. It’s easy to see how he becomes the life of the prison, and why the others adore him. He provides some of the only entertainment they get, and repeated retellings of his antics help liven up slow times. They really kind of lionize him, turning him into a living legend: this is why they’re so disappointed when he finally seems to break. It’s a bit like a child who idolizes their favorite athlete, only to find out that they are only human: it breaks a little bit of your heart to realize that they’re not superheroes. I thought Luke came up with some pretty clever ways of escaping, particularly his last two attempts. In his second attempt, he is supposed to be using the restroom; the guard tells him to shake a nearby bush so that they know he’s still there. However, Luke ties a string to the bush, so that he can continue shaking the bush even as he runs away. When he takes the truck, Luke pretends for quite a while to be completely broken (which he admits that he really was after the trench episode, but he soon regained form). This leaves the guards completely unsuspecting – they even let him get in and out of their trucks and handle their guns. Consequently, when he takes all the keys and leaves they are left completely gobsmacked. After this last attempt, it was pretty clear that something bad would happen to Luke. He is not going to submit to authority and stay in camp peacefully, and he has been unsuccessful in escaping several times – and it gets harder to escape every time, since they keep adding leg irons. Basically, there’s no way for him to survive. It’s a lot like Jack Nicholson’s character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – they can’t be allowed to continuously defy authority.
RATING: Young Paul Newman. Duh.