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Cool Hand Luke ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels

    He had a pair of nothing.  Smiling, he murmured softly.

    "Just remember, man.  Wherever you go and whatever you do.  Always play a real cool hand."
         -Cool Hand Luke

   For with God nothing shall be impossible.
        -Luke 1:37

There's nothing easier or more common in the Arts than to make allusions to the story of Christ.  In fact, my wife and I have a contest to see who can be the first to spot the obligatory crucifix scene in whatever movie we're watching--and, believe me, they almost all have them. But it is far more difficult for an author, artist or director to give his story a resonance and a meaning which will actually stand comparison with his source material.   One of the oddities of American Literature is that several of the very best novels in our national canon succeed brilliantly at this task, managing to summon imagery and themes from the life of Jesus, but tying them in to the quintessentially American drama of the yearning for freedom.  Foremost among the novels to achieve this in recent years--and really quite similar--are One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Cool Hand Luke.

Cool Hand Luke is narrated by Sailor, much of it as he overhears it from Clarence "Dragline" Slidell, as the road crew is resting in a churchyard, a yard which they consider "sacred ground" because it is where Dragline and Luke were finally captured..  Together their gospel recalls how Lloyd "Cool Hand Luke" Jackson came to be among them.  His crime--like Christ chasing the moneylenders from the Temple--was cutting the heads off of municipal parking meters.  Sentenced to serve on the chain gang at Raiford prison, he is put to work on what the convicts call the "Hard Road," his own Via Dolorosa.  The men are watched over by a group of brutal bosses, the most fearsome of whom is Boss Godfrey, with his reflective sunglasses which make him inscrutable.

Though not a particularly large man, Luke is a war hero, excellent musician, sharp card player, extraordinary worker, and incredible eater.  All of these add to his legend, but it is his indomitability that raises him to mythic status.  In the most symbol rich scene in the novel, Luke bets that he can eat 50 hard-boiled eggs in one hour.  Fifty four are prepared for the event, and by no coincidence that happens to be the number of men serving on the chain gang.  Luke of course succeeds in the effort, several of his acolytes finishing off the remaining eggs.

After Luke's mother dies, the warden has him put in "the box," just in case he gets any ideas about escaping.  Luke responds to this unjust punishment by taking off as fast as he can (on the 4th of July, naturally) and the remainder of the novel details his series of escapes and subtle and large defiances of authority.  Throughout, the other convicts live vicariously through his courage and his demonstration of will.  Though unwilling to resist the bosses themselves, they take inspiration from his example.  In their most powerful moment of resistance, they follow Luke's lead on a Friday afternoon as he prods them on to finish a particularly difficult stretch of roadwork ahead of schedule.

Finally, he becomes too great a challenge to the authority of the bosses and they determine to break him through a series of sentences to the box and brutal beatings, leading to the predictable but still affecting moment :

    With a final blow, Luke's head was flung forward.  He hung there by the arms, limp, sagging, held
    up by the trustees who turned their faces with sickened grimaces, unable to look at him, unable to
    look at each other.  And we stood there staring up at Cool Hand's body that was crucified against
    the sky, his bleeding head bowed toward us.

    Behind him stood Boss Godfrey, his black hat outlined on the cloudy heavens beyond, his mirrored
    glasses catching the full rays of the sun and reflecting them down upon us, the eyes of the Walking
    Boss becoming two balls of blinding celestial fire.

And in the end they do indeed make him despair :

    Don't hit me no more, Boss! Please! Don't hit me no more!  I'll do whatever you say.  Just don't hit
    me no more.

    The music stopped.  Boss Paul smiled.  The faintest trace of a grin moved at the corners of Boss
    Godfrey's lips.  Bending over, he spoke quietly, anxiously, almost with tender concern.

    Have you got your mind right, Luke?

    Yes sir, Boss.  I got it right.  I got it right.

    Are you sure, Luke?  You ain't gonna backslide on me are yuh?  You sure your mind's right?

    Yes suh, Boss.  Please.  Please don't hit me no more.

    All right Luke.  All right.  Ah won't hit you no more.

    The Building was silent.

But this is not the end of Luke, any more than Christ's cry of "Oh Lord, why hast thou forsaken me!" was the end of Him.  Luke escapes one last time, and though it is the last, even after he's gone, his life, his defiance of authority, and his passion for freedom serve as the examples that the men aspire towards.  Just as Luke took on the burden of their souls and their sins in the eating of the eggs, he has achieved Everlasting Life in their stories, if nowhere else.

If all of that seems too grandiose and a blasphemous conflation of the ridiculous with the sublime in what is, after all, just a prison story, recall that much of the symbolic power of the Cross lies in God's willingness to allow his son (himself) not merely to die, but to be executed in the fashion reserved for the lowest criminal.  Recall too that, just as the founders of Christianity were forced to hide in the catacombs of Rome and were fed to the lions, the first settlers of the New World were, many of them, drawn from the criminal and servile classes, and the Founding of the nation was essentially an illegal act of rebellion against duly constituted authority.  If stories like Cool Hand Luke, and Cuckoo's Nest, win a place in our culture and in our hearts that seems unjustified by their subject matter, perhaps it is because they tap into the most powerful myths and beliefs of the culture and because they are certainly no more absurd than a real life Messiah who gets himself crucified by the Roman Empire, but whose teachings proceed to conquer that empire, or the "rabble in arms" who won our independence from the British Empire.

N.B. Cool Hand Luke is one of the few great novels where the film version actually adds to the story.  The additional imagery (from a screenplay cowritten by Donn Pearce) and the brilliant performance by Paul Newman compliment the novel perfectly.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -REVIEW : of Cool Hand Luke (Dax Rowling , Crime Time Online)

    -BUY IT : Cool Hand Luke (1967) DVD (
    -INFO : Cool Hand Luke (1967)(Imdb)
    -ESSAY: The Messianic Figure in Film: Christology Beyond the Biblical Epic (Matthew McEver, October 1998, The Journal of Religion and Film)
    -CONCORDANCE : Cool Hand Luke (1967) (The University of Dubuque Theological Seminary)
    -Celluloid Jesus : The Christ Film Web Pages
    -ESSAY : LAWS OF GOD, LAWS OF MAN:  POWER, AUTHORITY, AND INFLUENCE IN COOL HAND LUKE (William Haltom, Legal Studies Forum,  Volume 22, Number 1/2/3 (1998)
    -ESSAY :  The Messianic Figure in Film: Christology Beyond the Biblical Epic (Matthew McEver, The Journal of Religion and Film)
    -REVIEW : of  COOL HAND LUKE  (OSBORNE M. REYNOLDS, JR, Oklahoma City University Law Review, Volume 22, Number 1 (1997)
    -REVIEW : of Cool Hand Luke (Tim Dirks, Film Site)