Cool Hand Luke

Cool Hand Luke

Theatrical release poster by Bill Gold
Directed by Stuart Rosenberg
Produced by Gordon Carroll
Screenplay by Donn Pearce
Frank Pierson
Based on Cool Hand Luke by
Donn Pearce
Starring Paul Newman
Music by Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography Conrad Hall
Editing by Sam O'Steen
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date(s) November 1, 1967 (1967-11-01)
Running time 126 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Cool Hand Luke is a 1967 American prison drama film directed by Stuart Rosenberg and starring Paul Newman.[1] The screenplay was adapted by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson from Pearce's 1965 novel of the same name. The film features George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon and Morgan Woodward.

Newman stars in the title role as Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp[2] who refuses to submit to the system. In 2005, the United States Library of Congress deemed Cool Hand Luke to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.



Lucas Jackson (Paul Newman) is arrested for cutting the heads off a town's parking meters one drunken night in the late 1940s. He is sentenced to two years in prison and sent to a Florida prison camp, run by the heartless Captain (Strother Martin). Luke is revealed to be a decorated World War II veteran, and is initially known to the other prisoners as "Lucas War-Hero." Luke fails to observe the established pecking order among the prisoners and quickly runs afoul of the prisoners' de facto leader Dragline (George Kennedy). The pair spar, with the prisoners and guards watching. Although Luke is severely outmatched by the larger Dragline, he repeatedly refuses to stay down and eventually Dragline refuses to fight further. Luke suffers a beating but wins the respect of Dragline and the rest of the prison population. Later, Luke wins a poker game on a bluff with a worthless hand. Luke comments that "sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand," and Dragline gives him the nickname "Cool Hand Luke."

After a visit from his mother and nephew (Eddie Rosson), he becomes more optimistic about his situation. Despite the brutal conditions within the camp, including hard physical labor and extended time in "the box" (a harsh solitary confinement used to punish disobedient prisoners), Luke demonstrates an unquenchable spirit and the other prisoners begin to idolize him, particularly after he wins a spur-of-the moment bet that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour. Luke continually circumvents the authority of the Captain and the prison-guard "Bosses" led by Boss Godfrey (Morgan Woodward) and his sense of humor and independence in the face of incarceration prove contagious and inspiring to the other prisoners. This struggle for influence comes to a head when Luke leads the work crew in a seemingly impossible effort to complete a road-paving job in a single day, in defiance of convention and expectations. Luke becomes recognized as a trouble-maker by the prison authorities. News of his mother's death reaches Luke and the Captain locks him in the box instead of sending him to work, anticipating that Luke might attempt escape in order to attend his mother's funeral. After this, Luke becomes determined to escape. After an initial escape attempt under the cover of a Fourth of July celebration, he is recaptured by local police and fitted with leg irons to prevent further attempts. Upon Luke's returning, the Captain delivers a warning speech to the other inmates, beginning with the famous line, "What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it... well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men."

Some time later, Luke makes another escape, this time visiting a nearby house where he uses an axe to remove his chain and curry powder to throw off the prison's tracking Bloodhounds. This escape is successful but short-lived. While free, Luke mails the prisoners a magazine that includes a photograph of him with two beautiful women, which is received with awe and delight. He is soon recaptured, beaten, and returned to the prison camp. As part of his punishment he is then fitted with two sets of leg chains. When he regains consciousness, Luke is annoyed by the prisoners' fawning and lashes out, revealing that the picture was a fake. At first the other prisoners are angry, but when, after a long stay in the box, Luke is forced to eat a giant pile of rice, the other prisoners help him finish. Luke's escapades seal him as a legendary figure in the eyes of the prisoners but the Captain sets out to break Luke's spirit. As punishment for his escape, he is required to dig a large hole of the same dimensions as a grave in the prison camp yard, then fill it in and repeat the process, and is mercilessly beaten as his comrades look on with horror. Finally, an exhausted Luke collapses in his hole and begs the bosses for mercy and not to be hit again as the other prisoners watch from the windows of the bunk house. Believing Luke finally to be broken, the Captain allows Luke to stop and go inside. Luke is hauled back into the bunk house where he struggles to his bed alone. Ashamed by Luke's capitulation to the Captain, the prisoners begin to lose their idealized image of Luke. One prisoner pulls out the magazine with Luke's picture in it and tears it up.

Though seemingly broken in spirit, Luke takes one last stab at freedom when he gets the chance to steal the guards' truck. Dragline jumps in the truck with Luke and they drive off. They travel until at night near a church, Luke tells Dragline that they should split up. Saddened and regretful, Dragline thanks Luke as they part and Luke enters the church. Here, Luke decides to talk with God, who he believes made him the way he is and is sabotaging him so he cannot win in life. Luke prays and asks God what he should do but gets no reply. Moments later, police cars arrive outside. Dragline re-enters and tells Luke that he made a deal with the bosses that they won't hurt them if they surrender peacefully. Luke, knowing better, moves to an open window, quotes the Captain's famous line from earlier ("What we've got here is a failure to communicate") and is immediately shot in the neck by Boss Godfrey. A distraught Dragline hauls him outside and attacks Godfrey but is stopped by the other men. The sheriff (Rance Howard) then says that he's made a call to the local hospital, but the Captain insists on taking him to the prison hospital. When the sheriff says that it's an hour's drive away and that Luke would never survive, the Captain merely says that "He's ours." Luke smiles weakly as the car drives off.

Later, Dragline and the other prisoners reminisce about Luke, who in death has regained all the adulation he lost among the prisoners and become a mythic hero. Dragline describes Luke's unique smile as scenes of Luke's escapades flash across the screen. The final image is the now-repaired picture of Luke and the two women, before the screen fades to black.



Upon its initial release, Bosley Crowther wrote an NYT Critic's Pick review, saying "what elevates this brutal picture above the ruck of prison films and into the range of intelligent contemplation of the ironies of life is a sharp script by Donn Pearce and Frank R. Pierson, ruthlessly realistic and plausible staging and directing by a new man. Stuart Rosenberg, and splendid acting by Paul Newman and a totally unfaultable cast"; besides Newman, Crowther commended Kennedy's "powerfully obsessive" depiction of the "top-dog who handles things his way as effectively and finally as destructively as does the warden or the guards" and Jo Van Fleet, "who, in one scene, in which she comes to visit him propped up in the back of a truck, does as much to make us comprehend the background and the emotional hang-up of the loner as might have been done in the entire length of a good film."[3] Variety magazine said the "versatile and competent cast maintains interest throughout rambling exposition to a downbeat climax."[4]

The Toronto Star, in a 2007 home video review, said the film's anti-establishment message fit well with the mood of the 1960s.[5] All of the forty-four reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes, including six top critics, gave the film a positive review, citing a 100% 'Fresh' rating.[6]

Awards and honors

Cool Hand Luke won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (George Kennedy), and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Newman), Best Music, Original Music Score and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

In 2003, AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains rated Luke Jackson as the number 30 greatest hero in American Cinema, and four years later, AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers: America's Most Inspiring Movies rated Cool Hand Luke number 71. Cool Hand Luke was included in the United States National Film Registry in 2005. Luke has also been ranked number 53 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Greatest Movie Characters".[7]

American Film Institute Lists

Famous line

What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week. Which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. And I don't like it any more than you men.[12]

The line is frequently taken as "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." Both are correct. This line is heard twice in the film, first in its entirety, with no "a", by the Captain (Strother Martin), and later on the first line with an "a", said by Luke. In the "making of" feature on the Blu-ray disk, Frank Pierson, the screenplay's co-writer, says that the line "just appeared" on the page as he was typing (that is, it was the result of his subconscious thought). After some debate over whether it was "too intellectual" a remark for the Captain, it was retained.

Strother Martin himself recalled in the book, Films of the Sixties, that he felt the line was one which his character, would very likely have heard or read, from some "pointy-headed intellectuals" that had begun to infiltrate his character's world in the 1960s, under the general rubric of a new, enlightened, approach to incarceration.

The quote was listed at #11 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most memorable movie lines.


The original score was composed by Lalo Schifrin. An edited version of the musical cue from the Tar Sequence has been used for many years as the news music package on several television stations' news programs around the world, mostly those owned and operated by ABC in the United States; this cue was first used in 1968 on WABC-TV in New York for their Eyewitness News newscast and was subsequently imported to ABC's other television properties. Nine Network's Nine News & WIN Television's WIN News in Australia, NBN Television's NBN News in Northern NSW, and Network Ten's Ten Eyewitness News (1960s-1994) still uses an edited version of the music, as does Radio Tonga in the Kingdom of Tonga and RPN's NewsWatch in the Philippines. Although the music originated from this film, to this day many people associate the tune with television news as opposed to the film itself. Frank Gari, who created many news music packages, recorded an arrangement of the Tar Sequence in 1983 as News Series 2000.


The book has been adapted into a West End play by Emma Reeves. Cool Hand Luke opens at London's Aldwych Theatre on 3 October, 2011 starring Marc Warren.


External links

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