Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Cool Hand Luke


Back in the late ‘60s we didn’t have much money, and so we seldom got out to see first-run movies. But that was okay, as there were several places in the Haight-Ashbury that showed movies for free. One of them was a Methodist church on Waller Street, a few blocks from our flat. It was pretty basic stuff: A large sheet, a 16mm print and one projector, so there was a wait while reels were changed. We didn’t mind. This is where I first saw Cool Hand Luke, a few years after it was made. I think we were all shocked by the level of brutality, and really shocked when Luke was murdered by a prison guard at the end. But it went over well. We loved it, and we loved Luke, a renegade at heart, as we hippies imagined ourselves to be.

Today, I think it’s very sad that such a strong man went to a chain gang for something as stupid as getting drunk and cutting the heads off parking meters. It was such an empty gesture, and the price paid for it was so high. But I still love Luke. It’s just about impossible not to. They broke him in the end (and his fickle friends abandoned him when he needed them the most), he admitted as much, but he still took his first opportunity to escape for a third time.

There’s several guys in the supporting cast who later went on to bigger things, like Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper, Wayne Rogers, and Harry Dean Stanton. The two that we all remember are, of course, George Kennedy, and the great Strother Martin. Now and then a line of dialogue achieves immortality: “I’ll be back.” “Are you lookin’ at me?” “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Go ahead, make my day.” Captain Martin’s “What we have here is failure to communicate” is one of those.

As for Mr. Kennedy, he deservedly won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar that year. His performance as Dragline, a man born to live in prison, was masterful. When he impulsively escapes with Luke, he has no earthly idea what to do next. He needs a regimented day, someone to tell him what to do. He would never make it in the outside world, where he is just another illiterate redneck. In the prison camp, he is the top dog.