This 1967 film was based on the Donn Pearce novel of the same name. It is the story of one man’s life on a southern chain gang. Pearce himself had actually spent time on a chain gang for safecracking.
Even though the story takes place somewhere in the south, it was actually filmed north of Stockton, California where the prison camp was constructed for the movie. Moss was shipped in from Louisiana and draped over the oak trees for a more realistic southern look.
Paul Newman, who plays Lucas Jackson, was nominated for best actor but lost to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award in the category Best Motion Picture Actor – Drama. He again lost to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night. The character Dragline is played by George Kennedy who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for that role. He was also nominated for a Golden Globe in that category but it was won by Richard Attenborough for his role in Dr. Dolittle. Strother Martin (1919-1980) does a superb job of playing the Captain in this movie. Martin was in a few other movies with Newman including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. You may remember him in that movie as the donkey riding, tobacco spitting mine boss in Bolivia. Other actors to look for in Cool Hand Luke are Dennis Hopper (Bobalugats), Wayne Rogers (Gambler), Joe Don Baker (Fixer), Ralph Waite (Alibi), and J. D. Cannon (Society Red).
The opening scenes of Cool Hand Luke shows Luke drinking beer while cutting the heads off parking meters with a pipe cutter. He’s arrested and sentenced to two years on a chain gang. The Captain asks him upon his arrival at the camp, “What’d you think that was going to get you?” He admits to Dragline later that he was settling an old score when he did it.
We learn that Luke is a war hero with a silver star, a bronze star, and a couple of purple hearts and that he made sergeant in the army but came out a buck private. It seems as if all of Luke’s problems are caused by him trying to get even for some wrong that the system, whatever system he happens to be in at the time, perpetrated on him. And it is no different in the prison system. When the Captain puts him in “the box” after the death of his mother, afraid that he might run if left on the work gang, Luke retaliates by escaping every chance he gets. Up until that time he’d been a model prisoner but he felt he was being punished for no reason.
Dragline is the self appointed leader of the prisoners and he gives each man a name fitting that man’s personality or some other characteristic. Luke bluffed during a poker game and won the pot. When Dragline saw the cards he was holding, he commented on his bad hand. Luke told him that sometimes nothing could be a cool hand. From that point on, he was known as Cool Hand Luke.
In one scene, Luke declares that he can eat fifty eggs in an hour. Dragline backs Luke and all the money in camp is riding on the outcome. Luke’s explanation for doing it is that it gives him something to do.
Another interesting character in the film is Boss Godfrey played by Morgan Woodward. He’s the road boss who has a rifle in the truck at all times but keeps the bolt and ammunition in his belt. He walks the road with a cane but when he sees something to shoot at, he raises his cane up in the air and the rifle is brought to him. He shows his prowess with the gun throughout the movie. Another feature that makes him so sinister, aside from the fact that he never speaks, is the sunglasses he wears. The camera frequently shows the reflection in those glasses so it seems as if you’re seeing things from his point of view. Dragline calls him “the man with no eyes”.
Things to notice in this movie are Luke’s frequent searches for God and the fact that even when he loses he beats his opponents.
- Paul Newman – Lucas Jackson
- George Kennedy – Dragline
- J.D. Cannon – Society Red
- Lou Antonio – Koko
- Robert Drivas – Loudmouth Steve
- Strother Martin – Captain, Road Prison 36
- Jo Van Fleet – Arletta
- Clifton James – Carr
- Morgan Woodward – Boss Godfrey
- Luke Askew – Boss Paul Hunnicut
- Marc Cavell – Rabbitt
- Richard Davalos – Blind Dick
- Robert Donner – Boss Shorty
- Warren Finnerty – Tattoo
- Dennis Hopper – Babalugats