“sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand…”
“what we have here, is a failure to communicate..”
I was sitting in Sitwell’s Coffeehouse the other day,
Lisa Storie, the owner, installed a TV set a little while ago and permanently tuned it to American Movie Classics. I was initially a bit resistant to its presence, but the thing grew on me after a while. Its effect is subtle. Say, you’re sitting down, talking with a friend, or people watching, or reading; there is a TV set above, silently playing some old arcane movie from decades ago. It is mounted up, above a corner water cooler at a peculiar angle. Always on the peripheral edge of your perception, until you choose to acknowledge it.
In any case, while I was typing up a manuscript I noticed that Cool Hand Luke(1967) was playing. I never saw it before but the film was one of my fathers’ favorites. He was constantly talking about it. You can read about the plot at IMDb, the page for Cool Hand Luke (1967) is pretty interesting. In a way it seemed to sort of serve as a model of masculinity to him. Luke, played by Paul Newman, is a war hero, and inveterate small time crook, a “pretty evil feller”, the type of guy post-war that people begin to look at as scum, can’t find a place in society, turns to crime, a n’er do good type of guy, but not in a vicious way.
HE constantly bucks the authority of the frankly murderous, in a genteel way, good ol boy Warden over Luke’s chain gang. Luke’s insubordination is an expression of a male spirit that refuses to be broken. Luke is a bad guy, like everyone in the gang he’s a bit of a bastard but the viewer is left wondering whose crimes are worse, those of the criminals’, or those of their brutal overseers.
Watching it I quickly realized why the movie was my Dad’s favorite, and why he wanted me to watch the film. Luke was a man who took his cards in life, screwed up the hand he was dealt but it was a meagre hand in any case, he tried, he failed, he accepted it and his lot in life – BUT he refused to be cowed by it. From his standing up to the big syndicate man among the inmates, facing him down in a bare fist boxing match in which he’s beaten almost to death, to taking a dare to eat 50 eggs something “ain’t no many can do” to his daring escapes, his tongue in cheek sending the boys back a photo of him with two hot girls, to his rejection of their idolizing him and his final standdown in an abandoned church, Luke refused to let his spirit be broken. He refused to complain or bitch about his lot, he accepted his mistakes, and refused to ever back down, always wearing a smirk on his face.
Beyond the historical reminder, after all people today have no idea just how brutal chain gangs were. Local legend and talk is full of, in the deep south, accounts of many an unmarked grave, sometimes a mass grave, where a a prisoner or prisoners were more or less extra-judicially executed. Colored prisoners doubtless but also many a white one too. Chain Gang labor really was legal slavery, constitutionally approved. Its’ forgotten that technically the Constitution’s 13th Amendment ended private slavery and slave ownership, penal slavery for convicts technically isn’t unconstitutional… but beyond this Cool Hand Luke is relevant to modern viewers because of its central message; you can be an inveterate fuck-up, a loser, a bastard, a no account man, but you must always, always, be a stand up man. You can make mistakes, but don’t let your spirit get broken.