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Cool Hand Luke: Saint Paul the Redeemer

(Stuart Rosenberg, USA, 1967): As Biblical allegories go, Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke suggests Jesus was no patch on Paul Newman, blue eyes and all. When Newman, in his anamorphic sun-kissed prime at 41, delivers himself up for martyrdom at the end of movie after cracking wise to God in an empty church, his transfiguration to eternity is sealed by a closing credit montage of Newman, as the incorrigibly non-conformist chain-gang hell-raiser Luke Jackson, smiling radiantly in instants captured from the movie we’ve just seen, grinning his way to heaven. It would take Jesus centuries to convince the unbelievers that he was the real deal in the messiah department, but Newman sealed the deal in a Hollywood heartbeat. With movies like this, stars like Newman and gospels delivered in such universal pop cultural eloquence, who needed religion? This was church enough for me, anyway, and no competition for the one that didn’t come supplied with Milk Duds.

My father took me to see this when I was closing in on ten, and Cool Hand Luke was just mystical enough, and just obvious enough, to confirm my nascent conviction that movies were what life aspired to and failed to replicate, and that if there was anything holy to be found in the routine of growing up lower-middle class in the still-unfinished suburban outskirts of London, Ontario, it was, as my mother called it, at “the show.” If I’d already unconsciously commended that whisp of inner life that passed for a soul to such blessed diversions as comics, TV shows, 45 rpm records and movies, this movie sealed the conviction. No church or sermon delivered within was going to compete with Paul Newman sticking it to the chain boss by simply being too cool to conform.

At the time of its release and only more so as the years went on, former TV director Stuart Rosenberg’s feature debut, based on Donn Pearce’s autobiographical novel about life on a Florida chain gang, would come in for a lot of flack due to its obviousness, unsubtlety and simplistic allegorical broad strokes. Moreover, it would be nailed for the one-size-fits-all general purposing of its endorsement of rebellion for its own sake, the suggestion that attitude was sufficient in itself as a statement of resistance, especially if what was being resisted was never more specific than a kind of minimum security roadside boy’s camp where the motley, misunderstood and generally unwanted were sent to repair the roads the rest of the world needed to pass them by. There was nothing particularly pointed or even outraged about Luke’s hard-wired wiseass disinclination toward the system, just like there was nothing particularly fixed about the movie’s period — ’30s? ’40s? ’50s? — unfolding time frame or even Luke’s own past. We’re told he was a decorated war hero who suffered serial demotion due to attitude problems, but which war? The big one? Korea? Vietnam? Did it matter?

In The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann cited this very lack of insurgent bona fides as an indication of Cool Hand Luke‘s bogus status as call to resistance: “His escapes are self-willed escapades, not acts of heroism. And he gets himself killed out of stubborn cussedness, not for any cause or practical reason. Thus the popular film arrives in the age of anti-idealism and of the acte gratuit. Camus’s Absurdity on the quarter shell.”

And Kauffmann wasn’t wrong. Not a bit. But Luke’s failure to communicate a practical agenda for revolt wasn’t so much a failure as a refinement, a boiling down of the era’s rising tides of dissension into a kind of diluted essence, the selling of the idea of non-conformity without the complexities of real world objects or affiliations. But this was 1967, after all, and even some of the year’s most popular movies were at least making an effort to clarify what needed rebelling against: the idiot drone of soul-draining cocktail chatter in The Graduate, or the killing intolerance of a besieged Old America in Bonnie and Clyde. Luke was simply up against a system annoyed by his acts of unrepentant, arrested-adolescent mischief. He’s sent for his two-spot on the chain gang for lopping the heads off parking meters while on a solo bender; he lets himself by pulped senseless by the hulking Dragline (George Kennedy) — who subsequently signs on as Disciple No. 1 — rather than lie down; his prelude to the movie’s most bald image of Christly transfiguration — Newman spread like the crucified JC on a mess hall table — by eating fifty eggs; and when he first busts out it’s so he can get to his mother’s funeral: a lost boy seeking his way home. The only thing Luke is really fighting back against are the limits being placed on him to be himself, and the only thing he’s fighting for is his right to be as Luke as he wants to be.

This is the distillation of dissent into a kind of irresistible posture and attitude, an assertion of style itself as a self-sufficient statement of rebellion. Watch how the movie stresses the placement of Newman as a kind of exalted figure among the other inmates: he is either separate or placed precisely at the centre of the increasingly adoring flock of black sheep, and Rosenberg can’t re-configure the iconographic geometrical dynamics of Da Vinci’s Last Supper quite often enough. Newman may inspire the inmates to whom he is delivered as a redeeming inspiration, but he is never really one of them nor can he ever be. When Dragline, now fully in supplicant puppy mode, follows Luke on his final escape, he is sent packing by his now-adored saviour, only to show up later in full Peter mode with the cops and bulls who will fire the final bullet.

The camp itself is a virtual semiotic mashup of implied pop cult insurgency: Easy Rider‘s Dennis Hopper is on hand as a simple-minded hillbilly acolyte, reprising almost exactly the same role he played alongside that uber-pop-method-martyr James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. (Whose fallen mother in East of Eden was played by Jo Van Fleet, Luke’s dying maternal flame here. Strangely, also impounded in Florida is the same movie’s other forgotten son, Richard Davalos.) Harry Dean Stanton provides a stirring, front porch-strummed version of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” as Luke, shackled, is led away to to be locked up in ‘the box’, and Walking Tall‘s Joe Don Baker looms large and observant on the sidelines. The TV version of M.A.S.H‘s Trapper John, Wayne Rogers, is on hand to take a lesson or two in charming prime time cockiness, and the presence of New Hollywood-era heavies like Luke Askew, Anthony Zerbe, Morgan Woodward and of course Strother Martin only increases the movie’s sense of righteous resistance against a scumbag regime.

The script has been challenged for its seemingly unfocused predilection for incident over unifying narrative, but this also serves Cool Hand Luke‘s status as euphemistic pop gospel: the incidents reflect various parables and eyewitness accounts of Luke’s cumulatively redemptive influence over his inmates, and that montage of smiles at the end — another aspect of the movie that has come under no shortage of criticism over the years — also reiterates the real function of the movie we’ve just seen as a collection of incidents reflecting and reifying the transcendent status of the man whose smile outlasted his flesh and time among the living, who ascended a made-in-Hollywood stairway to heaven so sturdy even Jesus the carpenter wished he’d built it. But Jesus, as Luke sings on his bunk after learning his mother has died, tears in his bluer-and-blue eyes and fingers on the banjo, was only made of plastic. It takes celluloid to make a real messiah. (Warner Home Video)