Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Written by Donn Pearce & Frank Pierson
There are many movies I watched as a child that had lasting effect on me, became part of a beloved memory, scared me, or just entertained me, but were memorable. I probably was around 16 when I first saw Cool Hand Luke and as it shows up repeatedly on TCM and is considered a classic I started to wonder why I had no real recollection of it. I watched it last night on a very nice big HDTV. It looked good with Conrad Hall’s cinematography.
I guess I didn’t remember it because it had no emotional impact to lodge itself in my memory or in my heart as somehow beloved. I guess there was some doubt as I started watching since I didn’t at all remember it fondly, or remember it at all, but I sat down ready to revise my view and watch a great classic.
OK, it’s a southern chain gang movie. How can one go wrong with that? It’s an anti-authoritarian set up. I go for that stuff and I certainly have liked other prison, chain gang injustice movies. For instance I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932) is one of my all time favorites, a social justice classic and an engrossing emotionally captivating movie. So I was pulling for Cool Hand Luke from the beginning, but soon it was clear that it was not a movie with that type of depth, more of a guys in prison comic book really and not a particularly good one.
At the outset I began to wonder. “OK here we are in the south, where are the black guys?” Is this a blue-eyed whitewashed racist movie? I mean there are no black people in this prison camp, overseers, inmates, none. There are only two black people in the whole movie. They are a couple of stereotypical grinning country boys who are conveniently on hand and willing to assist Luke in one of his attempts to escape. OK, I let that go. Maybe the prison system is just segregated so therefore no black people in the movie, fine, whatever.
Next bump in the roadwork was the hot babe washing the car scene. Like the blacks, there are only two women in this movie, OK, it’s a guys in prison movie. This car wash scene surprised me. I was actually amazed at how tacky and unrealistic it was. The chain gang is working and nearby a young woman is washing an old car. I get that they could have got all worked up seeing a young woman, and seeing one wash a car, but the scene is so crudely staged and shot that rather than accent the point it takes the movie directly out of any social realism potential and into naughty men’s magazine land. It is badly staged. Where is the woman on the landscaped compared to the men? We don’t know. Actually I think she was working on a different day than the chain gang shots that intercut. We see her working, cut to chain gang drolling, and back and forth. We are given closeup shots of her in her little hillbilly dress and the guys comment as if they can see the closeups we are shown. They see a safety pin, and comment on it, that is holding the top of her dress together. Really? At what distance in a safety pin visible? I didn’t buy it at all. This is the late 1960s and she is washing a giant old car from 20 years earlier simply because the movie wanted her to have to stretch and reach, giving the prisoners a tease of an up skirt shot. Plus wet top stuff. They could have done something like that, since they apparently felt the need to go there, by having a realistic car wash scene and cut in with the fantasy view of the men, but the scene is not treated that way. What was the point of this at all? Was it to derail the obvious homoerotisism of the shirtless muscled guys in prison content? It did nothing the forward a plot. I basically lost trust in the movie at this point.
The movie failed to regain my trust in following episodes.
The fight scene.
More movie phoniness. The lead bully prisoner fights the new uncooperative Luke. He’s a big guy. They are wearing boxing gloves and he easily beats the smaller Luke who hardly gets a punch in as he takes numerous head blows. He goes down, gets back up, goes down, the other prisoners tell him to stay down so the punishment can stop, but he gets up and goes down again and again in a long drawn out brutally dull scene.
All right, got the point, Luke ain’t a quitter. Geez! Of course since this is a typically phony movie fight scene, Luke has no lasting damage, no broken nose or missing teeth in the next scene. He’s the same pretty Paul Newman. Don’t try this at home.
“I can eat 50 eggs”
Of course after the fight scene the bunkhouse bully is now his chum. Apparently there is no budget constraints in this prison and the inmates can get all the eggs they want to play with. It’s a brag and bet scene which is another long drawn out episode as Luke eats hard boiled egg after hard boiled egg.
Then escape and since Luke is a hero now they all help out.
Capture, escape, repeat.
Beyond that there is more S&M content with Luke forced into supposed submission by the cartoon overseers. There are no real characters in this movie. But since he has submitted he is now shunned by the rest of the guy, no longer a hero.
Oh the guys. There are a lot of very fine actors in this movie. Many did excellent work just a few years later, but this is no ensemble movie so they are given literally nothing to do but hang around as glorified extras. They don’t even get to talk, well, Harry Dean Stanton gets to sing and play guitar.
Then escape again to a silly, in the church, talk with God scene and on to the miserable conclusion with a coda of the happier days of the smiling Luke montage stills at the very end.
I’m not at all opposed to anti-hero movies, after all I’m an anti-hero in my own little life drama. (Which is a hell of a lot more interesting and nuanced than this movie.)
The more I think about this movie the less I like it so I had better stop.
I’m a Fugitive From a Chain Gang has a much better story with real depth and character development and only asked for 92 minutes of my time. This thing went on for 126 minutes of shirtless white boy crap.
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