Cool Hand Christ

A lot of the flicks I watch are movies that came out when I was a kid, but that I didn’t get to see, or didn’t quite understand. I have seen Cool Hand Luke (1967) before, but my primary recollections of it are from the Mad Magazine satire, “Blue Eyed Kook” July ’68. I just watched it, and though it has its appeal, I found myself remarkable detached and uninterested in the fate of this white chain gang somewhere in the troglodyte South. What did strike me was depth of the Christ symbolism and story in the representation of Luke’s journey/Passion.

Luke is imprisoned for some drunken tomfoolery, and set to work on a road gang, mostly clearing brush. He figures as a kind of existential beat-era anti-hero, with his laconic apercus, e.g., “Sometimes having nothing is a pretty cool hand,” when he thoroughly bluffs his way to wining at poker and is anointed with his sobriquet by Dragline (George Kennedy.) He is temperamentally compelled to sass and rebel, although it comes out in bursts between periods of apparent cooperation with the “system.” In a final soliloquy in an abandoned church where he gets his death wish fulfilled, he asks God why He made him “this way.” The dialog is totally stagey and false: nobody who has his impulsive and uncooperative character is likely to have the self-awareness displayed in those last words of his.

That he has a death wish is made clear several times in the film, including one moment when he explicitly implores God to strike him down. His personal relationship with the “Old Man Upstairs” is one element of his Christ status: Like Jesus, he has a heavy burden to bear, and he does not always feel up to it. That burden is to bring light to the darkness of the prison, the uneducated, beaten-down, spiritually defeated inmates. After being initially hostile enough to him to pulverize him in a boxing match, Dragline becomes his indefatigable promoter and apostle, amplifying his message of purpose and life through his endless storytelling and myth-making. The boxing match was simply one of Luke’s trials to endure, as he establishes himself as The Messanger.

At each violent juncture in Luke’s stay in the camp, the inmates react, usually positively. They are inspired by him, and live out their hopes and aspirations through him, so much so, that Luke must admonish and rebuke them for “hanging on him.” They should “get out there,” themselves, he tells them after one failed escape attempt returns him beaten but unbowed to the camp, instead of feasting on his stories of freedom outside. Soo…why did he send them that faked photograph of himself with two women that got the men going so much? Was he mocking them? When Luke is finally reduced to a pitiable, pliable, obedient state through a night of grueling torture, the men turn on him and regard them with contempt, flicking their cigarette butts at him, and turning away, as though they could have done better. He let them down. His burden is heavy…

There’s lots of explicit christian symbolism in this film: Luke is left in a crucified posture after he ingests fifty hard boiled eggs to win a bit, a bit of (unintended?) comedy. No surprise he meets his end in an abandoned church. After all, the church, established religion, has abandoned him. As has society. After all, we are all simply alone. And we can’t even get help from one another – there’s that “failure to communicate” business.

It’s a real period piece, this film. It fits so well into the culture of anti-establishment gestures and rhetoric, the scorn, ridicule, and distrust that were heaped on previously respected institutions as a result of the 60s counterculture, and most of all, the horrible war in Vietnam. But seen at the remove of fifty-five years, it seems pretty tame. Almost innocent. Would that our problems were so clear cut and easily identified.

The only scene in this movie that stays with me as something truly impressive rather that contrived is the meeting between Luke and his dying mother. A marvelous scene, and his mother (Jo Van Fleet) was wonderfully acted.

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