One of the most famous and most often misquoted lines in “Cool Hand Luke” happens when Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is captured after one of his escape attempts. The Captain played by Strother Martin hits Luke severely on his back sending him tumbling down a small hill. The Captain stands high above over Luke and the rest of the prisoners down below the hill.
“What we got here…is failure to communicate”
Even the newspaper ads of the day got it wrong printing “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate”, they printed. Of course it is catchier saying it this way and it worked. The phrase has become part of our vocabulary, and as another well-known catchphrase states “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
One of the most condescending Oscars nominations ever given came in a watershed year for American film, 1967. In a year that contained such worthy films as “Bonnie and Clyde”, “In the Heat of the Night”, “The Graduate”,”In Cold Blood” along with some fine foreign films one has wonder loudly how such over blown trash like “Doctor Doolittle” ever got nominated. It was patronizing enough that Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was given a nomination, a film that patted itself on the back for its alleged liberal attitude, but “Doctor Doolittle” is pure animal excrement representing old Hollywood taking its final few breaths before collapsing into a coma in 1969. 1967 would also see Paul Newman at the peak of superstardom (when the title superstar actually meant something) in role that fit him and the times to a T, While “Cool Hand Luke” is not a masterpiece it would have certainly been more deserving of recognition from the Academy than Dr. Doolittle.
Local bad boy Lucas Jackson is placed in a prison camp for cutting off the heads of parking meters during one bored night of drinking. In prison Luke spits in the face of authority becoming a hero to his fellow prisoners as well as a target of the brutally sadistic guards. In the end the system wins, authority prevails over individuality.
“Cool Hand Luke” was a major financial hit and a film that connected with the rebellious youth culture of the 1960’s. The film is filled with lines that became catchphrases for the time. “Sometimes nothin’ is a real cool hand” and “Takin’ it off here, boss” along with the previously mentioned “failure to communicate” line are just a few of the lines that have become well worn over time. The film is also loaded with memorable scenes that have become timeless in their own right like Luke’s bet that he can eat fifty eggs, the boxing match, the most sensuous car wash scene ever put on film with the voluptuous soapy Joy Harmon sponge squeezing, and raising temperatures, plus a sensitively moving scene between Luke and his mother Arletta, touchingly played by both Newman and Jo Van Fleet.
“Cool Hand Luke” is filled with a wealth of supporting talented actors, George Kennedy as Dragline who won a Best Supporting Actor Award for the role and Strother Martin as the prison camp Captain who famously delivers the “failure to communicate” line. The cast also includes plenty of others, some already known, many who would become well-known in their own right within a few years either in film or television, like Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, Richard Davalos, J.D Cannon, Lou Antonio, Harry Dean Stanton, Robert Drivas, Joe Don Baker, Ralph Waite and Anthony Zerbe. Coincidently, there are some connections to James Dean here; most obviously with Dennis Hopper who was in “Rebel Without a Cause” but also with Richard Davalos who played Dean’s brother in “East of Eden” and Jo Van Fleet who portrayed his mother in the same film.
As I previously mentioned Paul Newman’s career was in the stratosphere by this time. He became a major star with Robert Rossen’s 1961 film, “The Hustler” and moved up to superstardom with films like “Hud”, “Hombre”, “Harper”, “Cool Hand Luke” (notice all the “H’s”) and the decade ending “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” There were lesser films in between, some decent and a few duds, but nothing seemed to dull his flame. Along with Steve McQueen, Newman owned the sixties.
The film should also be noted for its beautiful photography by Conrad Hall, one of the great cinematographers who makes the landscape look stunning at times, though I wonder if the photographic beauty is not really detrimental to the film’s overall vision. Compare it to the 1930’s classic “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang” with its dark and dank atmosphere. While Luke and the other prisoners work out all day in the hot sun it does not look that bad in comparison to the day shift on Muni’s depression era chain gang. Of course, the intent of the films are different, “I Was A Fugitive From a Chain Gang” was an indictment on the Southern prison camps of its time while “Cool Hand Luke” had a much less modest goal.
The script was written by Frank Pierson, based on a novel by ex-convict Donn Pearce. The script’s quality is reflected early on in the film when Luke arrives at the prison and explains to the bewildered Captain (Strother Martin) why he cut off the heads of parking meters. “Small town, not much to do in the evening,” Luke responds which makes us believe he was just some idiot drunk destroying public property. Later on he mumbles to one of his fellow prisons the same thing but adds, “just settlin’ some old scores.” It’s a throwaway line said quietly and off-handed but the line helps define Luke’s character as being something more than just a drunk out on another boring evening. We also discover that Luke won the Silver and Bronze stars, a couple of Purple Hearts and made Sergeant, only he came out of the service the same way he went in, a Buck Private. When the Captain asked what happened? Luke responds “Guess you can say I was just passing time, Captain.” Ever the free soul, Luke goes his own way no matter what the cost.
Not all critics were in love with the film. Pauline Kael dissed it, Stanley Kaufmann detrimentally compared it to “Chain Gang” seeing Luke as a loser who committed a petty crime and got the deserved jail time, while Paul Muni’s character was an innocent man falsely convicted who struggles against the horrors of prison camp and is forced to turn to a life of crime after he escapes because of the system’s failure. Both films do end on an ominous note, Muni fades into the night as his girl asked him “How do you live?” and he responds “I steal” and Luke is killed after his third and final escape attempt.