That year, I was just 15 years old, but I had my first serious girlfriend. I thought I was lucky indeed, as not only was she older than me, close to 17, she was good-looking too. She had a job, and other boys looked at her as we walked past. As an awkward schoolboy, I was definitely ‘punching above my weight’. One weekend, she asked if we could go to see a certain film at the cinema. She usually didn’t care what we went to see, as long as we went out somewhere, but she mentioned that “Paul Newman is in it”, so I guessed she was itching to watch this good-looking star.
It turned out to be a prison film, but one unlike most I had seen before. Not the grim concrete penitentiary I was used to seeing in old films usually starring someone like James Cagney, this one was set in hot and humid Florida, in a work camp where the inmates are forced to labour outside on a chain-gang. Paul Newman plays the titular Luke, with his usual relaxed style, exuding ‘cool’. The title seemed more than usually appropriate, on this occasion.
After a drunken bout of vandalism, Luke is sentenced to two years on the chain-gang. As soon as he arrives, his rebellious attitude upsets almost everyone; from the warden, (called The Captain) to the prisoner’s leader, Dragline. The latter challenges Luke to a boxing match, and even though he has no chance of beating the bigger man, Luke accepts. His determination to fight against the odds wins him the respect of the inmates, and the further distrust of the guards and overseers. Luke’s behaviour in prison continues to confuse his comrades and guards alike. He leads a team to tarmac a road in record time, and wins a contest after claiming that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour. After a successful bluff during a card game, he earns his nickname of ‘Cool Hand’ Luke.
But when his mother dies at home, Luke contrives to escape, to attend her funeral. Later recaptured, he is punished by being put into ‘The Box’, a tiny space with little air, and no room to move. Once released from this, Luke soon manages to escape again, now openly defying the authorities in the camp. After a short time on the run, Luke is fitted with leg irons by the guards, on his recapture. The other inmates help him where they can, but he appears to have finally been broken by harsh treatment, becoming withdrawn and compliant. But it is a ruse, and he soon escapes again, this time stealing a truck, and taking Dragline with him.
This is indeed a memorable film. Not just for Newman’s Oscar-nominated performance, but also for George Kennedy’s Oscar-winning role as Dragline, as well as the always reliable Strother Martin, as The Captain. With a chilling turn from Clifton James as Carr, one of the guards, we also get delightful small parts from Harry Dean Stanton, Anthony Zerbe, and Dennis Hopper. The well made set-pieces like the egg-eating contest are unforgettable, and the unexpected ending is the icing on a very cool cake.
It also left us with the famous quote from The Captain. One I have used many times since.
“What we’ve got here, is a failure to communicate”.