The Gospel Of Cool Hand Luke
© 7.05.06 By D. Eric Williams
The 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke (starring Paul Newman and directed by Stuart Rosenberg), is considered one of the archetypal anti-establishment movies of the 60's. The film chronicles the descent and death of the antihero, Lucas Jackson, after he is arrested for destroying parking meters in a small southern town. True to his anti-establishment role, when asked why he cut the tops off the meters Luke replies, "Mostly was just settlin' an old score."
The Christian imagery liberally sprinkled throughout the movie is difficult to miss. At one point bets are made as to whether Luke can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in an hour (there are 50 inmates at the prison). Luke eventually succeeds and the scene ends with the antihero lying stretched out on a table strewn with egg shells. The camera moves to an overhead shot and we see him lying with arms outstretched, legs crossed at the ankle in a Christlike crucifixion pose. The messiah had taken the sins of the people upon him (within him in this case), and died (the other inmates leave and the camera lingers on Luke's motionless body before cutting to the next scene).
Additionally, Luke was raised by an ("anti-virgin"), single mother (Arletta, portrayed by Jo Van Fleet). When he learns of her death, Luke tearfully sings a song about a dashboard icon representing the Virgin Mary. However, unlike Jesus Christ, Luke never knew his father and his relationship to the Heavenly Father is nonexistent as well.
Rosenberg's message of hopelessness becomes quite clear in the resurrection scene. In an attempt to break Luke's spirit, one of the Bosses forces him to dig a grave, fill it in and then dig it out again. Luke finally collapses at the bottom of the ditch as if laid out in the grave and cries out to God. He is allowed to climb out of the hole and go to bed after assuring the Boss that his "mind is right." Consequently, Luke rises from the dead in sniveling defeat rather than in power and victory.
Rosenberg's point is that there is no beating the Establishment - no beating The Man - and that there really is no messiah who will lead us out of our enslavement to the status quo. The common man is pushed around by those in authority and their arbitrary rules. There is no use in fighting back or making plans for a better life because the Establishment is too big and too powerful to fight (Luke tells Dragline near the end of the movie, "I never planned anything in my life"). Rosenberg longs for freedom - he "can't seem to find no elbow room" as Luke terms it; but even when a messiah comes, he is eventually beaten by The Man and betrayed by a Judas seeking favors from the powers that be (Dragline leads the cops to Luke in the closing scenes and later shows remorse in his suicidal attack on the boss "with no eyes").
The movie ends with Dragline sharing the Gospel of Cool Hand Luke with the other inmates while they stand outside the Church where Luke was shot. However, rather than a message of true hope and redemption, Dragline embellishes the story and paints a picture of Luke coolly staring down The Man and going out with a smile on his face. Rosenberg is saying that even though we can never overcome The Man, salvation myths are necessary to give us hope. He seems to suggest that the Christian Gospel also serves that purpose and nothing more.
Yet,Cool Hand Luke could be taken from the pages of Ecclesiastes with its message of hopelessness. As with the Preacher, Rosenberg seems to be saying (unwittingly?), that life apart from God is without meaning or purpose and is directed by forces beyond our control. Indeed, a film maker working within the context of a Christ centered world view might make a film very similar to Luke.
The danger in Luke or any film like it, is in its portrayal of the "bad guy" as a hero. The symbolism may be lost on the audience; Especially in post Christian America where most people have little or no familiarity with the Christian Scriptures. Certainly the stories of the Bible are common to the human understanding; Luke, for instance, is a tragedy in the classic sense with its descent and death of the (anti)hero for the sake of his beloved (his fellow inmates). The story of the Eternal Son is likewise a tragedy with Christ eventually descending and dying for the sake of His beloved. Nonetheless, it does require some background knowledge in order to recognize the whisper of the cosmic drama in a film like Cool Hand Luke and so beginning Christian film makers may need to utilize a different genre in order to ensure that their message is understood. I'm reminded of the first time I saw the film, The Cross And The Switchblade, with Pat Boone as David Wilkerson and Eric Estrada as Nicky Cruz. I must have been around ten or eleven years old at the time and the message of the film was lost on me entirely. After watching the movie during a chapel service at the Christian school I attended, my buddies and I ran out to the play ground and formed our own schoolyard versions of the Maui Mauis, the Viceroys and so on. We were enthralled with the idea of being in a gang and fighting turf wars with other gangs. It never occurred to us that the joy of gang land comradery was not the main thrust of the film.
J.R. Tolkien once said that fantasy is the truest form of story telling. Fantasy draws upon the stories that are part of the collective human psyche and represents them plainly and accurately. The lines are most stark in fantasy - unless they are purposely obscured; good is good and evil is evil and the hero and his purpose are easily identifiable. There is no need for an antihero to represent the hero in order to catch the attention of a jaded audience. Even though everyone already knows the story, we all long to be a part of the grand adventure. No one really wants to be Lucas Jackson - except foolish eleven year old boys, and even they grow up to learn the truth one day. On the other hand everyone wants to be Aragon, Gandolf or Eowen - everyone wants to be the dauntless hero or the courageous princess. Thankfully, everyone can be. Christian film makers need to show them how.