Note: This Week in the Box is a year-long series where Sam works through the entire Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection box set. To find reviews of the other films in the series and see the complete list, click here.
Cool Hand Luke, being one of my father’s favorite movies, was something of a staple in my house growing up. I hadn’t sat down to watch it in a couple years, though, so I went in to this with some trepidation. Turns out I had nothing to fear: while it remains imperfect, I love it no less now than I did when I was a kid and my dad sang the Plastic Jesus song in the car.
The titular Luke gets himself thrown in jail for, what else, cutting the heads off parking meters. This gets him the kind of puzzled looks you’d expect, and the way he casually shrugs it off (“Small town, not much to do in the evenings”) is representative of his attitude towards most things. After a period of wariness from the old-timers, he leads the cast of inmates in a series of merry adventures (well, as merry and adventurous as you can get on a chain gang; one of the movie’s most famous parts is Luke’s bet that he can eat 50 eggs in an hour).
Things get progressively more serious and less fun as Luke runs up against things he can’t just shrug off: first the prison bosses, who, if they aren’t actively working against him, aren’t working for him either, and then God himself, who seems to take it personally.
My memory of this movie, even having rewatched it for this project, is composed 90% of the first 40% of the movie and only 10% anything that happens after he eats the eggs. The fun parts stick in my head and I have a vague notion that it gets sadder after that, when in reality the happy part lasts just long enough to establish Luke as a real cool fellow before the persecution starts. I’m not sure if that’s a fault with me or the movie. I always feel like the bad stuff is kind of a coda, but it actually makes up the bulk of the movie.
And boy, is there bad stuff. Luke gets beaten down, physically and spiritually, by his ordeals. Wikipedia notes the strong Christian overtones in the movie, which I didn’t notice as a kid and don’t care much about now, and I can’t honestly say whether it adds up to anything at the end. Whether things go south because it was the 60s and [insert something here about anti-establishment, rebellion, etc] or because he must be made to suffer at the hands of God, or a third option yet unexplored, I don’t know.
But to be honest, I don’t really care. I’m captivated enough watching Paul Newman be cool and seeing how the characters interact that I don’t really care about the possible larger implications of Luke’s fall from grace. I don’t think you need one Official Answer to why things are happening to see them going badly and feel for Luke because of it. It can function as a parable if you want, but it functions just fine as a story regardless.
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