Cool Hand Luke (1967): Cult Prison Drama, Starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy, Who Won the Supporting Actor Oscar

Cool Hand Luke, a commercially entertaining prison drama, but unevenly directed by Stuart Rosenberg, offered Paul Newman one of his very best roles.

 

Thematically, this chain-gang film drew heavily on the gloomy Depression era drama, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni, which was made in 1932.

Visually, the film is shapeless, despite Conrad Hall’s sharp imagery, perhaps because of Stuart Rosenberg’s inexperience; he is better known as a writer and this was his feature debut.

But the helmer should at least get credit for casting a gloriously accomplished cast, which somehow rises above the directorial limitations.

End result is a vastly entertaining picture, which contains half a dozen good scenes, some of which have become favorite among a growing cult following.

The tale’s anti-hero protagonist is James Allen (Paul Newman, at his best), a war hero down on his luck who’s sentenced to a chain gang, presided over by Strother Martin (George Kennedy). The governing authority is represented by the ruthlessly dictatorial prison guard who stands above the gang–and above the law.

Set in the early 1960s, the film is based on Don Pearce’s 1965 book of the same title.  Pearce sold the story to Warner, but due to Pearce’s lack of experience, the studio hired Frank Pierson to rework the screenplay.

Newman’s character, Lucas Jackson, is described (by the notorious “Captain,” upon his arrival at the prison), as a “free spirit,” whose personal record (read out loud because of its unusual details) indicates a man who started well in the US Army, receiving medals for bravery in the Korea War and rising to the rank of Sergeant, yet was discharged as a “buck” Private.

Luke doesn’t question his physical incarceration, and initially has no thought of escape. But his spirit is noticeably defiant. This free thinking is, from the outset, noticed by the institution, its guards, and its leaders.

Reacting with both fear and loathing, they retaliate against Luke through physical punishment and psychological cruelty defined by sadism.

Some critics have suggested that Luke’s influence on his prison mates and the torture he endures makes him a Jesus-like figure. Christian symbolism is manifest throughout the film, culminating in a photo that is superimposed over crossroads at film’s end, which some see as reference to the crucifixion.

Upon its release, Cool Hand Luke received favorable reviews and was a huge commercial hit. Made on a budget of $3.2 million, the movie earned over $16 million at the box-office.

The film cemented Newman’s status as one of the era’s most bankable actors, a status he would maintain for another decade.

In 2005, the movie was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry, considering it to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”

Quotable Lines

The line used by Strother Martin’s prison warden, which begins with “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” occupies the 11th position on the AFI’s list of the 100 most memorable movie quotes.

“Cool Hand Luke” had less to do with the conditions of American prisons than with the state of American society at large, defined by a culture that fails to provide employment and economic security.

Reflecting the zeitgeist, Cool Hand Luke was a touchstone of the era, made at the height of the Vietnam War, in 1967, alongside other seminal films, such as “The Dirty Dozen,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” The Graduate,” and “In the Heat of the Night.”  All of these films, regardless of their specific genre and heroes (or anti-heroes), were critical of the status quo–the establishment–that prevailed in the public and domestic arenas in terms of norms and values.

As noted, Rosenberg’s greatest achievement was in assembling a great cast that included, other than Paul Newman and George Kennedy (who won the Best Supporting Oscar, see below), Jo Van Fleet, Dennis Hopper, and Harry Dean Stanton.

 

Actor Alert:

Paul Newman had auditioned for the part that James Dean ultimately got in Kazan’s “East of Eden.”  In that 1955 picture, Dean’s other (presumably better) brother was played by Richard Davalos, who is cast as Blind Dick in this picture.

Oscar Nominations: 4

Screenplay (Adapted): Don Pearce and Frank R. Pierson

Actor: Paul Newman

Supporting Actor: George Kennedy

Music Score (original): Lalo Schifrin

Oscar Awards: 1

Supporting Actor

Oscar Context:

In 1967, Paul Newman lost the Best Actor Oscar (his fourth nomination) to Rod Steiger, who earned it for In the Heat of the Night, which also won Best Picture and Screenplay for Stirling Silliphant.

Elmer Bernstein won the Scoring Oscar for the musical “Thoroughly Modern Millie.”

 

Cast

Paul Newman

George Kennedy

J.D. Cannon

Lou Antonioi

Robert Drivas

Strother Martin

Jo Van Fleet

Clifton James

Morgan Woodward

Luke Askew

Marc Cavell

Richard Davalos

Robert Donner

Warren Finnerty

Dennis Hopper

John McLiam

Wayne Rogers

Harry Dean Stanton

Charles Tyner

Ralph Waite

Anthony Zerbe

Buck Kartalian

Joy Harmon

Jim Gammon

Joe Don Baker

Donn Pearce

Norman Goodwins

Charles Hicks

John Pearce

Eddie Rossen

Rush Williams

James Jeter

Robert Luster

Rance Howard

James Bradley, Jr.

Cyril “Chips” Robinson

 

Credits

A Jalem Production.

Produced by Gordon Carroll.

Directed by Stuart Rosenberg.

Screenplay by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, based on the novel by Donn Pearce.

Photographed by Conrad Hall.

Music by Lalo Shiffrin.

Film Editor, Sam O’Steen.

Art Director, Cary O’Dell.

Set Decorations, Fred Price.

Sound, Larry Jost.

Costume Design, Howard Shoup.

Makeup, Gordon Bau.

Hairstyles, Jean Burt Reilly.

Associate Producer, Carter DeHaven, Jr.

Production Manager, Arthur Newman.

Assistant Director, Hank Moonjean.

Shot on location in the San Joaquin area near Stockton, California.

Technicolor. Panavision.

Running time: 129 minutes.