1967 — a very good year for the antihero

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

12 September 2008


COOL HAND LUKE 3 ½ stars CAST: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet and Clifton James. DIRECTOR: Stuart Rosenberg DISTRIBUTOR: Warner Home Video Rated PG

“Cool Hand Luke,” starring Paul Newman, is filled with contrasts and ironies.

At times, Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 film seems like a feel-good movie about prisoners on a Southern chain gang just after World War II. The influence of a genuine rebel in their midst - Newman’s Luke, who leads them in an egg-eating contest, makes the most tiresome work feel like fun and refuses to fully submit to his jailers - enables the oppressed inmates to bond together and make the most out of their incredibly meager lives.

But “Cool Hand Luke” is also a depressing journey into the hell of prisoner abuse, where guards with virtually unlimited power sadistically and cruelly keep the inmates in line. (The film’s PG rating is absurd, given the nature and degree of the abuse.)

The dual character of the movie is most clearly seen in its most famous line - “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” - delivered with apparent calm and rationality by the prison’s boss, The Captain (Strother Martin), just before he loses it and starts to beat Luke, who has just been captured after an escape.

Looking back at “Cool Hand Luke,” which is out this week in a new “Deluxe Edition” DVD (Warner Home Video, $19.97, rated PG), one can also see how the film fit in neatly with the social currents of the day.

As an existential rebel - even one without a cause - Luke makes a perfect anti-hero for the late 1960s, when the protests against the status quo by civil rights and anti-war activists, and a more general questioning of authority by young people, led to many challenges of the status quo.

“Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Graduate,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “The Dirty Dozen” also came out in 1967, and in their various ways these films also reflected the changing attitudes and social mores of the times. Although some were set in the past while others took place in the present, and their endings were alternatively happy, depressing and ambiguous, their connection to American society c. 1967 was real and unmistakable.

And although “Cool Hand Luke” for the most part stays away from racial issues - the prison farm in rural Florida is all-white, reflecting the realities of the South in the late 1940s where prisons were segregated - there’s one short but telling scene that doesn’t. When Luke is on the run after his second escape from the chain gang, he receives aid from two African-American kids.

As Eric Lax, author of “Paul Newman: A Biography,” says in his audio commentary on the DVD, “The only people (Luke) can turn to are the most disenfranchised.”

The good-vs.-evil theme can even be seen in the way the movie was photographed, says director Rosenberg in the recently-made DVD documentary, “A Natural-Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke.”

With California’s Stockton, Lodi and the Sacramento River Delta standing in for rural Florida, “Cool Hand Luke” looks great. Rosenberg, who passed away in 2007, says that he wanted the beauty of the rural surroundings (shot by cinematographer Conrad Hall) to appear in stark contrast to the horrible conditions in which the prisoners lived. Lax reports that truckloads of Spanish moss had to be imported from Louisiana to give the Stockton area a more Southern look.

Both the documentary and Lax’s commentary offer many insights into the production. This was Rosenberg’s first feature film, following a successful directing career in television, and he went on to make several more movies with Newman, including “WUSA” and “The Drowning Pool.”

The ensemble cast Rosenberg put together was filled with veterans of New York’s Actor’s Studio, like Newman himself, and solid Hollywood character actors who would go on to have major careers - Martin, George Kennedy (who won a best-supporting actor Oscar for his performance here), Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Anthony Zerbe, Clifton James, Wayne Rogers, J.D. Cannon, Harry Dean Stanton and Joe Don Baker.

“They had a bond, and they had it quickly,” says Rosenberg about his cast, a theme that is echoed in interviews with cast members Kennedy, Waite, Zerbe and Lou Antonio. (Newman did not participate in the documentary.)

It’s also a bond that viewers have had with “Cool Hand Luke” ever since its premiere in November 1967, one that will no doubt remain with the release of this new DVD.

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