We want a savior.
Someone bigger and stronger than us.
Someone who can stand up to the powers that push us down.
Someone who can be defiant in the face of overwhelming odds.
Someone who can eat, say, fifty eggs.
On the surface, Cool Hand Luke is the story of life inside a prison chain gang. Yet, with most good stories, there is more than just the surface story. There is a story of human beings and how we interact with each other and the world around us.
George Kennedy's Dragline is the strongest inmate in this road prison before the arrival of Paul Newman's Luke. Dragline is powerful because he is big and strong and knows how to play ball with the bosses. He is an extension of the bosses but is "one of the boys." He is also weak because he cannot read and he isn't the sharpest fellow around. He just knows how to play the game. When Luke arrives, Dragline sees something. He sees someone who knows how to play the game better than he does. He sees someone who just might know how to win the game. Yet the secret to Luke is that he wins because he just doesn't care that much whether he wins or loses.
In the film's Saturday morning punch-fest between Luke and Dragline, Luke keeps getting back up, giving the phrase "stay down" new meaning in our culture (I believe Rocky would borrow it a decade or so later). Luke is still swinging at the air even after Dragline walks away. He knows his only way to win is to never give up, so he doesn't, but at the same time he doesn't really care whether he wins or loses. He just refuses to give up. He isn't playing the game to win. He is playing the game never to lose.
There is only one person who both loves and understands Luke, his mother Arletta. The most overlooked part of the film deals with her arrival on visiting day. In her conversation with Luke we see a window opening, a story of love, about having "a feeling for a child." Deeds mean little in the face of real love. Luke's brother has had what seems to be a successful a respectable life, but Arletta has no real love for him. Her love is given to Luke unconditionally. When she passes, Luke's temperament changes. Where he once played not to lose, he now is left not really caring whether he lives or dies. The most dangerous man is one who has reached this point. When the letter comes to announce her passing, Luke knows. He doesn't have to look at the letter. There is nothing else he would ever be notified of.
Get yourself a sweet madonna
Dressed in rhinestones sitting on a
Pedestal of abalone shell
Going ninety I ain't wary
Cause I´ve got the Virgin Mary
Assuring me that I won't go to hell.
Luke wins at poker with absolutely nothing in his hand, which is the secret to him. He has never had anything in his hand, which he confesses in the end during his speech to God. "You gotta admit you ain't dealt me no cards in a long time." Before Arletta's death, he played it fairly safe, but after her passing he makes three escape attempts. She was his last card and now he doesn't have any, so the only option is to go looking for some more. In the film's coldest scene, Luke is locked up in "the box" for the day while the rest of the prisoners go out to work on the road. He is locked up because they feel he is likely to escape and attempt to pay last respects to his mother. A man is punished for his grief to prevent him from reacting "incorrectly."
"Calling it your job don't make it right."
The prison authorities are only interested in maintaining control and exacting respect from the inmates. It is what they are supposed to do, but this sets up the infamous Christ comparisons. I've always believed those were overstated, because they are there, but not in the way most people like to broadcast. To these inmates, Luke is Christ-like. While they are broken, beaten and serving time under the yoke of oppressive authority, he is unwilling to submit and gives them hope in the darkest of times. They all eventually betray him after discovering he is no better than they are after having raised him up on a pedestal. In the end it appears he outsmarted everyone, which is how his story is told in later days, but the truth was that he was broken. They did break him and conform him to the "correct" way of thinking. He simply snapped in the end because he couldn't live that way.
In the final scene he tries to submit to the ultimate "boss" and finds that doesn't go so well either. There is nothing but bosses, rules and regulations and Luke can't deal with any of them. As one of the great anti-heroes, Luke works marvelously well. If you watch the film, ask yourself, how could things work out for this man? You'll find the answer very elusive. Yet, you wonder, is a man less of a man because he cannot conform to the expectations of society? Is he less of a man because he cannot "get his mind right?" In the film he only becomes less of a man once he does "get his mind right." There are those who simply were not made for this world and they suffer for their time here. Luke represents someone like that, and if we go back to the Christ angle, neither was he. Some of us are doing time in this world, and some of us spend more time trying to fool ourselves than Luke does. He knows he is just passing time...