Oh yes, "It's Going to be a Scorcher!" a film series curated around Paul Newman's summer films. Last week, we embraced the heat of August and between Ben Quick (Newman) and Clara (Newman's real-life wife Joanne Woodward) in The Long, Hot Summer. Today we shift gears, but continue our venture of end of summer days. This time, Newman endures the heat of another kind entirely... working on a chain gang in Cool Hand Luke.
Cool Hand Luke (1967)
Similar to The Long Hot Summer, which was based on work by William Faulker, this film is based on Donn Pearce's 1965 Cool Hand Luke.
The story surrounds Lucas "Luke" Jackson (Newman), decorated war veteran, who lands himself in prison after a drunken night of cutting the "heads" off parking meters. In the 1960s, destruction of public property plus public drunken disorderly means two years in a Florida chain gang. This means doing manual work like cutting weeds and tarring roads in the hot southern summer heat. Luckily for Luke, he gets to keep his bottle opener necklace and still enjoy the occasional beer in this work-focused prison.
Not to say this prison is all sunshine and rainbows. No, it is the kind of prison where the warden has a southern drawl and goes by Captain (Strother Martin), where the rest of the employees go by "Boss," like Boss Paul (Luke Askew), Boss Shorty (Robert Donner), and the mysterious overseer of the chain gang who wears mirrored sunglasses and rarely speaks (Morgan Woodward). Each one of these men will happily throw a prisoner in "the box" to make a point, not just to the man sentenced to solitary confinement, but all the prisoners.
No one in the prison goes by their real names. Each person is given a nickname by Dragline (George Kennedy) who appears to be at the top of the prison hierarchy. Names he has given include: Loudmouth Steve (Robert Drivas), Babalugats (Dennis Hopper), Tramp (Harry Dean Stanton), and Society Red (J.D. Cannon) to name a few. Luke, of course, does not jump right in to the pack, but finds acceptance in his own way.
Luke, over the course of a few events-boxing match, poker game, egg eating contest-wins respect and even the nickname from Dragline "Cool Hand Luke." He has a tenacity and charm that wins everyone over. On visitation day, we get a glimpse of Luke's previous life when we meet his ailing mother Arletta (Jo Van Fleet) and see her admiration for him. It seems he is energized to do right by her and he continues ways to pass the time in prison, like engaging in a one-man eating contest and challenging his fellow prisoners to work at top speeds to complete a task ahead of schedule.
After what is considered a moment of testing God, everything starts to turn for Luke and the prison heads are determined to break him.
From then on, Luke tests the system, test himself, and even our preconceptions of who the good guys and bad guys are. However, as Dragline himself notes, through the sweltering backbreaking work in the heat, through the punishments, through even the crime, Luke has a smile about him. "That old Luke smile. Oh, Luke. He was some boy. Cool Hand Luke. Hell, he's a natural-born world-shaker."* This quote to me beats the classic "What we got here is... failure to communicate," because when everything is stacked against you, a smile can do a lot of good.
*There is a whole tie-in to processing the world after seeing the horrors of war, but for this series we are focused on surviving the heat - but I put that out there for you to think about.
So when working out in the heat or trying to stay cool in the last days of summer, remember to embrace Luke's smile. Remember if you get your work does fast, you have the rest of the day to enjoy. Of course, Luke would also encourage a beer every now and then too. The trailer, as always, is below for you to watch. Next week will we will be back for one of my all time favorite films. Hope to see you then.