Saturday, September 15, 2012

Friday Night at the Movies VII

Friday night was another video night. A few months ago I found Cool Hand Luke in the Wal-Mart 5 Buck Bin, and Friday night I finally broke the seal.

It has been a few years since I had seen Cool Hand Luke. Some scenes were familiar; others barely remembered.

Of course it was easy to remember Paul Newman in the title role. In the opening scenes of the movie, where his character Lucas Jackson is caught drunk, cutting the heads off of parking meters in the dark. At times it seems like the only light in the scene is coming from Newman's famous blue eyes.

When he is delivered to the prison camp the camp warden, played by Strother Martin, and known only as Captain, reads off his service record from the Korean War, including a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts, and promotions to Sergeant, as well as demotions to Buck Private.

Our friend Luke seems to have a problem with authority, but not bravery.

The balance of the movie is Luke's battles with authority, both the official Prison system, and the more informal prisoner system.

The Prisoner system is easy. Luke has a fist fight with the prisoner's self appointed leader Dragline (George Kennedy in the role that won him an Oscar), that Luke refuses to lay down for. Dragline eventually walks away from the fight, leaving a battered and wobbling, but still standing Luke in the ring.

His battles against the official system doesn't end as well, or as easily. After numerous stays in The Box, a cramped, unheated, windowless structure, where the prisoner has a can of water and a bucket for a bathroom, Luke escapes. After he is caught and beaten, he is returned to the camp and kept in leg irons.

Luke's return the chain gang contains the most famous line from the movie: "What we have here is failure to communicate." Luke has not gotten the message about who is in command.

He escapes again, and is caught again, beaten again, and put in a second set of leg irons. Unlike the prisoner's control system, which appreciates a man's spirit, the official system does not. The Captain determines that he has to break Luke's spirit.

After several days and night of brutal treatment, Luke finally breaks. He has ended his brutal treatment at the hands of the guards, but lost the respect of his fellow inmates.

He becomes a toady for the Bosses, the guards who watch the prisoners work along the road; running errands and fetching water for the other prisoners. Everyone believes he has been broken. But he is just biding time, gaining the trust of the Bosses.

One day, out on the road gang, Luke steals the keys from all of the trucks while performing his toady jobs, and when told to go to a truck for an item, steals the truck instead. as he is driving off, Dragline jumps onto the running board, escaping with him.

Dragline and Luke split up, and Luke winds up hiding in an old. back-country Church. He sees the lights of the prison vehicles and the local police pull into the church yard just as Dragline steps through the back door into the church. Luke steps to a front window, overlooking the vehicles in the yard, and throws the Captain's words back at him: "What we have here is a failure to communicate".

At that point one of the Bosses shoots Luke square in the chest.

As Luke is being driven away to the prison hospital, he looks out the window of the patrol car and grins at Dragline.

Luke has spent the entire movie battling against authority. Did he win or lose? The movie doesn't let us know if he lived through being shot or not, but the impression is that he did not.The prisoners are seen in the final shots talking of Luke's exploits; including his final smile.

If you look at Luke himself you could say he won. He was no longer under the thumb of the prison system. He was dead, but he went out on his terms, defying their authority to the last. He was also a hero to the prisoners.

But you can also look at the larger picture. The prison system was free of Luke, and they had killed him. He was no longer around to challenge their authority. They had made him an example.

Or had they made him a martyr?

To me, the movie says a lot about challenging authority. Luke is working hard in the first scene, cutting heads off of parking meters. He's not stealing them; just cutting them down. To make a point. To challenge the city's authority to charge for parking. The challenge costs him 2 years in a prison work camp.

Once in the camp, he challenges the authority he finds there. The self imposed authority of the inmates he beats easily; Luke shows he will not be beaten down, and the authority accepts that he is an equal. The authority that Dragline has a leader is granted to him by the other prisoners, and when the sympathy for Luke from the prisoners threatens Dragline's position, he does the only thing he can do; he acquiesces to that sympathy and stops fighting.

But the state imposed authority is a little more hard nosed. Not only will it not accept his challenge, it refuses to accept being beaten. The guards do not have to answer to a higher authority, as Dragline does. Their job is to control all of the prisoners, up to and including the ability to kill a prisoner.

The question is, which type of authority have we created in our government; Dragline's, or the Bosses?

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