Paul Newman is anti-establishment
Paul Newman summons the power of Steve McQueen, and goes to town being an anti-war, anti-establishment Jesus in Cool Hand Luke (1967). This movie typified the 60s trend toward anti-heroes, and Paul Newman fit the bill about as good as any actor ever. He takes the religious metaphors and symbolism and uses them to show a tormented rebel, a guy who doesn’t like rules and regulations, but is forced to follow them anyway. Much like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (1963), Newman marches off to his prison term with dignity, but wears his true nature all over his face and in his body language. He’s cool, smooth, and lives by his own rules. He’s nobody’s flunky. You down with that?
Toward the end of the film, Paul Newman sings the famous folksong “Plastic Jesus” as he sits on his bunk, depressed over the death of his mother and his lot in life. He continues to verbalize his plight, wondering if the “old man” upstairs has anything more for him other than pain, torture, and punishment. Paul Newman as Luke, goes through a lot in this movie.
At first, Newman is a popular guy on the chain gang, but after a while he can’t take it anymore. The guards whap him when he talks back and much of the double-talk is meant to break his spirit. At one point, he’s told to dig a ditch, but the guard later wonders why Luke’s dirt is on his grass. The guard tells him to put the dirt back, but then changes his mind and Luke is digging it out all over again. Like a true tormentor, he changes his mind faster than a girl in a jewelry store. That’s a pretty good scene.
Cool Hand Luke takes place in the 1950s amongst some prisoners on a chain gang, living in a run-down camp. It doesn’t glamorize anything, except Newman’s spirit. He’s able to make the other prisoners laugh and celebrate with him on more than one occasion, but the guards beat him down for his efforts. As this continues, his friends see Luke become a helpless man and desert him, like the Apostles. Newman plays it right, as depressing and sad as possible, which inspires him to sing “Plastic Jesus” in the first place.
Unlike The Great Escape, this movie isn’t really that funny or comedic, only amusing in some parts because of Luke’s indigent attitude. He bets the other guys he can eat 50 eggs, but they’re quick to point out that nobody can eat 50 eggs! So what does he do? He eats 50 eggs. That’s right, he backs up what he says, unlike almost everyone else. The eggs scene is probably the last amusing point in the movie before it becomes depressing again, where Luke starts trying to escape.
Captain: What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate
Strother Martin provides one of the most quotable lines in movie history, and delivers an underrated performance too. Luke doesn’t like to be pushed around, so the Captain smacks him around a little, realizing his true spirit. Luke stops smiling eventually, until he doesn’t care anymore. This descent is a slow one, but is pretty well-done thanks to Newman’s classic performance.
Overall, this movie only works because of Paul Newman, who smiles and laughs in the face of authority, like a true anti-hero. The religious iconography is a bonus and works in this context, as a metaphor for Luke’s punishment and inhuman trials. Newman doesn’t actually say all that much during the movie, and there are certainly other great characters with twice as many lines, however none are as memorable. As he takes up his banjo to lament his fate, I think you can see tears in Luke’s eyes. As the song progresses, he gets louder and more forceful, which says something about heroism and maybe more about personal character.
Luke is beaten down for his attitude, but what did he expect? This guy is anti-everything and plays by his own rules, which doesn’t work for any authority anywhere. The only one left to appeal to him to stop being an idiot is his friend played by George Kennedy, who loves him as much as Peter loved Jesus. Still, Luke smiles at the cops, and tells them: Hey, what we got here is a failure to communicate. Yes, that’s right, Luke taunts them and that’s when Luke is shot and killed.