11 November 2007

82. cool hand luke

the film examines two archetypes that endure: the anti-hero & the christ figure.

first, "cool hand luke" is an prime cinematic example of the anti-hero. as in "one flew over the cuckoo's nest", we are given a character who is charming, yet has serious flaws, most notably that they are both criminals. but their charm and their wit and -- this is not a small point -- their sense of fun go a long way towards the audience empathizing with their plights. moreso, though, when the actions of our anti-hero are contrasted with that of the "establishment", we have no choice but to side with the hero. in the case of "cuckoo", that comes in the form of a mental hospital which we slowly see does nothing to help the patients, but instead seems to reinforce their illness. in the cast of "cool hand luke", we see a prison with an extraordinarily strict schedule (see the floor man's monologue, each sentence ending with "...in the box.") enforced by a passive-aggressive warden and a man in black and glasses with an itchy trigger-finger.
the bottom line that connects nearly all films portraying an anti-hero is a supremely american one: the desire for freedom. this desire is so ingrained in us that we can't help but agree and root for anyone who espouses it, and who does something concrete about it, even if it results in their death (see also, "easy rider", "american beauty", etc. etc.)

the film also portrays luke as a christ figure. these two archetypes are related -- christ, in his day, was the ultimate rebel, going against the establishment of the day. luke, in his prison, shows a quiet dignity and gains the respect of his inmates, who later become something like disciples as he teaches them how to retain their self-respect and self-identity in such a stifling place.
christian imagery abounds: there is gospel music snuck into the background throughout (and sometimes in the foreground -- see paul newman's "plastic jesus" after the news of his mother's death), luke lies in the crucifixion position after eating the eggs, he "turns the other cheek" during his fight with dragline, dragline behaves like judas and betrays him, and finally, as the camera ascends towards heaven, we see luke with a picture torn like a cross.

neither of these archetypes are easy to pull off. the anti-hero has to gain our sympathy right away, and the christ figure has to be righteous but not overtly holy. "cool hand luke" does both, and paul newman's portrayal is part of what has made him such an iconic figure in cinema.


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