I hope some lovers of “Shawshank” will take the time some day to watch “Cool Hand Luke”. To me, “Luke” is everything “Shawshank” thinks it is but is not. “Luke” explores the function of hero worship in a society of losers and miscreants, how they make him a sacrificial substitute for their own fears and inadequacies, and how, when he forces them to face the reality of their own weaknesses, they must destroy him. And then, once he is safely expelled, they re-imagine him as the avatar of their own fantasies of power and defiance. It is a fascinating film, and a comment on the type of heroism expressed in “Shawshank”. I call “Luke” the “evil” twin of “Shawshank”, in the sense that it incisively undermines the fundamental myth of the latter, the same way “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”, in my opinion, destroys the mythic con of “Dead Poets Society” by showing you the real implications of a charismatic teacher who develops a cadre of followers among his students.
The story: It is 1948. Luke (Lucas) Jackson is introduced to us as a miscreant, a rebellious young man who takes a pipe cutter to the parking meters in a small town somewhere and is arrested and sentenced to a work prison. He is tested by the other inmates, particularly Dragline, to see how tough he is. When he refuses to knuckle under to the established hierarchy in prison, he arouses the dislike of Dragline, the reigning tough. But when he proves to be very, very defiant, even challenging Dragline to a boxing match (which he loses, very badly) the other prisoners begin to admire him. When he bets that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs, and wins, he becomes a hero and even Dragline acknowledges his preeminence. At a card game, he successfully bluffs a very weak hand and earns the nickname, “Cool Hand” Luke.
He persuades the other prisoners to put maximum effort into a road-building task. To their own surprise, they finish the job early and get a break from the guards.
When he is denied a temporary release to see his mother before she dies, he bides his time and then escapes, and the admiration of the other prisoners knows no bounds. Dragline, in particular, idolizes him and never tires of recounting his exploits which grow bigger and bigger with each telling.
“What we have here, is failure to communicate”. It’s a wonderful scene: the prison warden, having attended a seminar somewhere, seems genuinely, twistedly well-meaning: if you would just obey and respect us, your life would be miserable, yes, but we wouldn’t have to beat you. They beat him relentlessly sure that they will break him. And they do. He becomes so docile and respectful that they make him a “trustee”, and the other prisoners begin to hold him in contempt. As they relax the strictures around him, Luke breaks free one more time. Dragline, seizing the opportunity, and intoxicated with Luke’s audaciousness, joins him, only to realize, shortly afterwards, that with only two years left on his sentence, it was stupid decision.
Spoiler alert: the police do catch up with Luke, thanks to a betrayal but the Judas of this film, Dragline. It is clear that this time the warden does not intend to take him alive. Dragline does survive, however, to regale his fellow prisoners with his selective rendering of Luke’s defiance and courage.
The summary you will find on the IMDB then ends with “Luke managed to unmask the injustice and hypocrisy of the system in which he was confined… in the final analysis, he could not be broken by the system”.
Did this person really watch the film? Did he get it? It is a very common misapprehension of “Cool Hand Luke”. Most people seem to come away with the idea that Luke was heroic for standing up to brutal, ignorant authority. I don’t think the movie is really about that. It is really about how the role of myth in our culture, how our “heroes” become substitutes for own responsibility for our own freedom and dignity. Dragline and the other prisoners have surrendered their individuality and self-respect in exchange for a slightly less toxic life in the prison camp. They have given up something of enormous importance in exchange for a trinket.