COOL HAND LUKE - Blu-ray review

...most viewers will have little failure understanding the movie and its motives. They communicate brilliantly.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar's, and unto God the things which be God's."
--Luke 20:25

"What we've got here is failure to communicate."
--Strother Martin, "Cool Hand Luke"

Paul Newman has made any number of good films in his career, many of them award-winning films, most of them memorable films. Who can forget "Somebody Up There Likes Me," "The Long, Hot Summer," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "The Young Philadelphians," "Exodus," "The Hustler," "Hud," "Hombre," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," "The Sting," "The Verdict," "The Color of Money," "The Road to Perdition," or "Cars," to name only a few. But of all his films, my favorite remains "Cool Hand Luke" (1967), the very essence of everything good the man ever did in movies.

Ostensibly, "Cool Hand Luke" is the story of a gentle loser sentenced to a Southern road prison and his relentless attempts to escape. In this regard, the movie works well as a drama and as an adventure, especially with its excellent supporting cast of feature players. Look for George Kennedy in a role that won him Best Supporting Actor; plus Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, Wayne Rogers, Lou Antonio, Jo Van Fleet, Clifton James, Dennis Hopper, Anthony Zerbe, Ralph Waite, Joe Don Baker, Rance Howard, and the dean of character actors, Harry Dean Stanton, among others.

On another level, though, the film is much more. Similar to many books and movies of the 1960s, Donn Pearce's novel and his and Frank Pierson's screenplay are about Man's need to persevere, to struggle for personal freedom, to be oneself, to live as an individual within a world that does its best to impose conformity on all its citizens. We see comparable themes in Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," John Knowles' "A Separate Peace," Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," Joseph Hellers' "Catch-22," Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five," and many more. Luke quickly establishes himself as a leader among the prisoners on the chain gang, becoming their inspiration and their guide. He demonstrates through example that giving up is the only form of defeat, and that Man need never give up, no matter what the circumstances. In this regard, the movie inspires people to do their best to remain human in a society seemingly given over to making everyone alike.

Yet Luke accomplishes his uplifting message not through anything he says so much as through his deeds and actions, and it's here that the story takes an unconventional turn. The narrative takes as its inspiration Pearce's own two years on a chain gang, true, as well as the life and teachings of one of the greatest souls ever to espouse the rights of Mankind: Jesus Christ. Think about it: On the one hand, Luke feels alone, the symbol of modern existential Man; on the other hand, Luke is a teacher and a martyr, a Christ figure. While it may not appear so at first glance, "Cool Hand Luke" does nothing less than borrow from the New Testament story of Christ to reinforce the message of prisoner Lucas Jackson. Like Christ, who began his evangelical calling relatively late in his short life, Luke takes a while to find his purpose: to inspire people to follow their own star and to instill in them the hope for something better. In fact, the movie starts slowly and builds incrementally, taking most of the first half before it dawns on a viewer that the story is a Biblical parable. Sacrilegious? I think not. After all, isn't it fitting that an inspirational movie be a parable, an allegorical tale meant to teach a moral principle, the kind of storytelling Christ Himself used so effectively during his ministry?

If you have never thought of the movie in this way before, a Gospel-inspired interpretation might be something of a revelation. Once you begin looking at it in terms of its Christian symbology, it may surprise you how many similarities you'll find.

For the next few paragraphs, I'd like to point out several of film's more obvious Biblical references. If you've never seen the movie before, however, you might want to skip this part and move along to the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

1. Author Donn Pearce named the main character "Luke." Luke is also the name of the man whom tradition tells us wrote the third book of the Gospels as well as the "Acts of the Apostles." Like the Luke of the movie, Saint Luke remained unmarried, with no children, and his accounts of Jesus are among the most socially aware in the New Testament. I suppose the movie could have named Newman's character Jesus, but that might have been a bit unsubtle.

2. The number that Luke wears on his prison uniform is "37." Luke 1:37 reads: "For with God nothing shall be impossible."

3. In the movie, Luke has only a mother, Arletta (Jo Van Fleet), never having known his father, a situation that reflects that of Jesus being the Son of Mary and of God.

4. Luke calls upon God in rather ostentatious prayer several times during the film, each time referring to Him as "Old Man," as in his old man (or father).

5. Luke is basically an innocent, convicted for cutting the heads off parking meters, just as the Romans convicted and crucified Jesus on empty, trumped-up charges. "Small town," says Luke. "Not much to do in the evening."

6. The prison and road gang to which the court assigns Luke represent the oppression of society in general, in this case paralleling the Roman Empire, the guards and bosses symbolizing the might and authority of Rome. Luke's greatest contribution in life is showing people that one can live within the confines and rules of any system, yet still be true to one's personal convictions.

7. One guard in particular wears silver-coated sunglasses. The convicts refer to him as the "Man with No Eyes." Clearly, the story's writer means for him to exemplify the unwavering might of Rome and the "blind justice" the Romans dealt to anyone who opposed them. In the long run, Christ's gospel won out over Roman law.

8. Luke would appear to have nothing going for him but pure will, determination, charisma, and unshakable faith. But faith, the Bible tells us, can accomplish anything. Luke loses a fist fight to a much bigger prisoner, Dragline (George Kennedy), but wins Dragline's respect in the process. "Stay down," says Dragline, "you're beat." "You're going to have to kill me," says Luke. Later, Luke wins a poker game with a losing hand by bluffing. "Nothing," says Dragline. "A handful of nothing.... He beat you with nothing. Just like today when he kept coming back at me, with nothing." "Yeah, well," says Luke, "sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand."

9. The big man named Dragline becomes Luke's closest friend and most ardent supporter, although Dragline loses his confidence in him toward the end of the story. Later, after Luke's death, it is Dragline who figures most prominently in mythifying Luke, turning him into a semireligious symbol and continuing to teach Luke's principles of self-assurance, self-reliance, and individuality. The viewer may see Dragline as St. Peter, the most prominent of Christ's twelve disciples, the traditional "Rock" of the early Christian Church, and reputedly its first Pope. Peter was a big man and a fisherman; thus, his common title, the "Big Fisherman." And Peter denied Christ three times before His crucifixion. Remember George Kennedy's 6'3" frame and the name "Dragline," as in fishing? These things are not accidental.

10. It isn't long before Luke gains the respect and following of his fellow prisoners (who become his disciples), mostly by doing the seemingly impossible--the miracles of the New Testament brought to life in the modern day. Besides the fistfight and the poker game, Luke leads the men in tarring and graveling a road in record time. "Where'd the road go?" asks Dragline. "That's it. That's the end of it," says Luke.

Next, Luke claims "I can eat fifty eggs." "Nobody can eat fifty eggs," says Dragline. "Nobody ever eat fifty eggs," says Luke. And he does. When he's finished, the camera photographs him from above, lying on a table half naked, arms outstretched, belly swollen, his head surmounted by a halo of egg shells. Anybody who doesn't get the point by this time has never read the Bible or seen a religious depiction of Christ on the cross. To drive the point home, we later get a scene of the "Last Supper."

"Ain't you scared? Ain't you scared of dying?" Dragline asks Luke. "Dying?" he responds. "Boy, he can have this little life any time he wants to."

11. When Luke tries to escape and the guards bring him back, they put into a solitary-detention box. They give him only a white gown (resembling a white robe) to wear. "Sorry, Luke," says the guard, "I'm just doing my job. You gotta appreciate that." "Nah," says Luke, "calling it your job don't make it right, Boss."

12. Luke dies when the implacable prison guards hunt him down one final time and kill him. It happens in a church, with Luke again talking to his God. "Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can you spare a minute. It's about time we had a little talk."

13. A moment after Luke dies, a car rolls over the dark glasses of the "Man with No Eyes." In death, Luke has defeated the ultimate authority; he has gone out his own way, leaving his martyrdom behind, an inspirational tale to live on forever.

14. After Luke's death, we see Dragline spreading Luke's story to the other prisoners, perpetuating the legend, the myth. Then we see a shot of a photograph of Luke with a pair of prostitutes on either side of him, the photo having earlier been torn up. Now, we see the photograph restored (Luke resurrected), superimposed over the group of prisoners as they talk at a crossroads, shot from above. It's Luke's picture against a cross, the two sinners on either side of him, his disciples in the background.

15. And do you think it's a coincidence that when Luke's mother dies, Newman sings "I don't care if it rains or freezes, 'long as I got my plastic Jesus, ridin' on the dashboard of my car," and Harry Dean Stanton does a heartfelt rendition of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee"?

I really love this picture.

Trivia note: Although the story's setting is in the rural South, the studio filmed most of it in California's Central Valley around Lodi, Stockton, and the San Joaquin River. For Hollywood, Central California was closer to home and, thus, cheaper to film there.

Warner video engineers went back to original film elements to remaster and restore the movie. Even if this Blu-ray, BD25, VC-1 transfer is still not among the best I've seen, compared to WB's old standard-def DVD edition, it is a night-and-day improvement. Colors and clarity are preeminent here, with hues that are rich and vibrant and a screen that is free of noise, dirt, scratches, lines, or age. There is quite a bit of location shooting in the film, yet these scenes display only an expected modicum of film grain. Conrad Hall's 2.40:1-ratio Panavision photography shows up well, but razor-sharp definition may never have been a hallmark of the master print. The fact is, the high-def image remains more than a little soft and fuzzy. Fortunately, the deep, vivid colors make up a lot of ground lost to the object delineation.

On the plus side, the newly mastered 1.0 monaural audio is warm and natural and probably sounds better today than it did when WB first made the film. On the minus side, Warners use only an ordinary Dolby Digital track to reproduce it. Perhaps on a single-layer BD25 they didn't have room for anything more, or perhaps they figured there wasn't much to reproduce and Dolby Digital was good enough. Nevertheless, audiophiles and videophiles would no doubt argue that nothing but a lossless audio track is ever good enough. I'll leave that issue for other people to debate. My only minor concern about the new audio is that the level seemed a little lower than I'm used to and lower than on WB's old standard-def disc. Perhaps there is a wider dynamic range involved, I didn't check; if so, it still sounds somewhat limited. The main thing is that dialogue is rendered smoothly and realistically, and Lalo Schifrin's simple, folksy, jazzy musical score never sounded better.

There are really only two bonus items on the disc, but they are among the more worthwhile extras you'll find on any disc because they're direct, concise, enlightening, and entertaining. The first is an audio commentary by Newman biographer Eric Lax, whom I found both informed and informative. The second is a 2008 documentary, "A Natural-Born World Shaker: The Making of Cool Hand Luke," twenty-eight minutes with the director, the writer, the composer, and many of the film's stars.

Things finish up with thirty-seven scene selections; a widescreen theatrical trailer; English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Swedish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
With "Cool Hand Luke" you get your money's worth. You get engaging characters, an involving plot, exciting action, touching relationships, first-rate acting, an intriguing parable, and a slate of thoughtful ideas. If you can't appreciate some or any of these points, perhaps you can take comfort from Strother Martin's character, the prison warden, who tells us "What we've got here is failure to communicate." But I figure most viewers will have little failure understanding the movie and its motives. They communicate brilliantly.

Warner Bros. are simultaneously releasing the movie on this Blu-ray disc and in a new standard-def Deluxe Edition.


Film Value