MRR's Movie of the Week: What's So Great About "Cool Hand Luke"?

Photo Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
January 14th, 2013

MRR's Movie of the Week: What's So Great About "Cool Hand Luke"?

The film "Cool Hand Luke" has had plenty of honors bestowed upon it, not least of which is an Academy Award nomination for lead Paul Newman, as well as a win in the Best Supporting Actor category for George Kennedy. It has even been added to the National Film Registry because it was deemed an important cultural work with great significance in the film industry. With all these accolades, it is fair to ask whether or not the film deserves them, and what it is about the 1967 movie makes it such a cultural touchstone.

Newman turns in what many still argue today was the best performance of a career full of awards and nominations for his acting. The supporting cast includes Kennedy and features Strother Martin as the Captain, and is top notch across the board. The film's script is well written and does not have any lulls in the action, which means the audience is always fully engrossed. The direction, cinematography, and even the music are all spectacular. There doesn't seem to be a single oversight anywhere, or any real area of improvement, which makes for a very rare and phenomenal film.

The biggest reason that it has been deemed so fantastic is because of the overarching theme of the film. Lead character Luke Jackson is a man who just wants to live his life without the various confines that society puts upon him. He is not a rude, antisocial, or unkind man, but some people may see him that way. The film is set in the 1960s, when the older and younger generations were clashing over culture and the state of society. With everything changing so rapidly, it was not always easy to know what was expected of you. All Luke wanted was a simpler time when the rules weren't always changing and he could just be himself without the expectation of having to conform to those changes. It is a theme that is universal, and is relatable to many people who have difficulty adapting to a changing world. Viewers who weren't even born yet in the 1960s can still relate to the underlying angst that Luke feels due to all the constant changes.

The film also dares to ask what it means to really have nothing. In a very famous scene, from which the movie drew its name, Luke is playing poker and wins a huge pot by bluffing with a terrible hand. He says, "sometimes nothin' can be a real cool hand," which forces viewers to ponder on this point, which in a less dramatic movie probably would have been a throwaway line. In "Cool Hand Luke," none of the lines are throwaway. Almost all of them have a much deeper meaning in the context of the film. In this case, the line makes one think about how having nothing in life can be an advantage. Luke has nothing, and he has nothing to look forward to for the next two years of his life while he serves out the rest of his prison sentence. Could it be that his having nothing is a good thing? If he has nothing, there is nothing to lose, meaning Luke can perhaps live life on his own terms. That is, if he was not in a prison camp. Being in jail makes it hard to live your life the way you would like to, which is all Luke wants to do. If he were a free man, the fact that he has nothing would be the most freeing thing of all.

Another thing that those who haven't seen the film may not realize is that it was responsible for coining the phrase, "what we have here is a failure to communicate." This famous line has been uttered several times in pop culture, in films, television, and music. Many who say it probably don't know where the phrase comes from, because it has become so ingrained in society that the origins have got blurred. Nonetheless, it is a big deal for a film to be the starting point for a popular phrase; this is another reason why it is judged a great movie.

"Cool Hand Luke" is considered to be one of the better films of all time by film critics and movie fans alike. The themes about the human spirit and how much one person can endure are universal, no matter what era the viewer lives in. The world is constantly changing, and there are many people like Luke Jackson who are taken aback by the changes and just want to do things in their own way. As long as people feel the same alienation that Luke felt, "Cool Hand Luke" will continue to be regarded as a spectacular film.