Friday, January 16, 2009

Cool Hand Luke -- anti-authority antiheroes

Director: Stuart Rosenberg, 1967.

"What we got here is . . . failure to communicate." So says the captain of the prison camp (Strother Martin) to Luke (the late great Paul Newman). This famous line epitomizes this film, which underscores the chasm between authority figures and iconoclastic loners.

We meet Luke at the start, a free man. But he's drunk and taking heads off parking meters for the fun of it. For this misdemeanor he is sentenced to jail time. He will be working a Southern chain gang. Though not a prison, there are rules and regulations. Any infraction earns the prisoner a night in "the box," a wooden pillbox-like structure with no windows and no room to lie down. Even from the start, it is clear that Luke plays by his own rules. to himself, he quickly runs up against Dragline (George Kennedy), the unofficial leader of the chain gang. Determined to teach him a lesson, Dragline takes him on in the Saturday boxing fight. Beaten senseless, Luke keeps on getting up. What started as entertainment for the men and a form of humiliation for Luke, winds up being painful for everyone. They all want the beating to end. Even Dragline tells Luke, "Stay down. You're beat." But Luke responds, "You're gonna hafta kill me." Dragline leaves him punch-drunk, wandering on legs of jelly. Yet, this kind of determination earns a prisoner respect. And in a poker game later, Luke earns the friendship of Dragline and his prison moniker: "Cool Hand Luke."

George Kennedy won a best-supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Dragline. He shows him change from gang leader to a "puppy" that follows Luke everywhere, idolizing him. Even at the end, he preaches the legend of Luke. Newman, too, was up for an Oscar for this poignant performance, one of his finest and definitive, of a free-spirited man crushed by society's rules; but he lost out to Rod Steiger for In the Heat of the Night. (Nominated 9 times, Newman won only one Oscar, for The Color of Money.) the men of the prison camp Luke is a leader, "a natural-born world shaker." But he does not want to be a leader. He has no plans, he lives moment to moment. He just wants to serve his time. He brings the unconventional to these men and gains their respect. But he also earns the eye of the bosses, the prison wardens, to whom he is a trouble-maker.

When his mother dies, the bosses preemptively put him in the box until the funeral is over, to stop him from running. This pushes his buttons. When he gets out he does run. But he can't outrun the baying dogs and the pursuing police. He is caught and given leg irons.

Luke was a symbol of hope to Dragline and the other men in the prison camp. They had their rituals but were following the rules and regulations imposed upon them. Luke brought a sense of freshness to this incarceration. We all need hope. We all need a breath of fresh air when our lives get stale. Jesus can offer us that hope (2 Thess. 2:16). He gives us that freshness that energizes and motivates us to keep going even in the monotony of life. Luke was an antihero. His was a life of breaking the rules, of doing what he felt like doing regardless of the cost. And this cost him his freedom. Jesus, on the other hand, is our true hero. He has given us some rules to follow. The two greatest commandments, he tells us, are to love our God and to love others as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). The rest of the Law, the Old Testament, can be summed up in these two (Matt. 22:40). He also gives us a new commandment, to love one another (John 13:34). The life Jesus wants us to live is not one that is overly constrained by a list of dos and don'ts. He wants us to be free, but within the constraints of love. We still need to live within society's rules. We cannot become anarchists or even iconoclasts like Luke. Instead, to live like Jesus is to experience real life, life to the full (John 10:10).

Luke could not be held back by a simple set of chains. It is as if he relishes the opportunity to challenge authority. Or perhaps he simply wanted to savor the freedom he once tasted. Regardless, he ran again, knowing that this third time would be his last. When he finds himself trapped in an abandoned church, he finally offers up a prayer to God: "Anybody here? Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can you spare a minute. It's about time we had a little talk." It's said that there are no foxhole atheists. And Luke, an atheist, exemplifies this. Surrounded by police and the bosses wanting to gun him down, he finally turns to God. Although acknowledging his existence, Luke clearly has a distorted theology. He sees God as the old man in the sky.

His prayer continues: "You've got to admit You ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. It's beginning to look like You got things fixed so I can't never win out. Inside, outside, all of them . . . rules and regulations and bosses. You made me like I am." Luke knows he is in trouble, yet he blames God for his problems. Like Adam in the garden who, when confronted by God with his sin, shifts the blame to Eve and God (Gen. 3:12), who gave him the woman, so Luke will not accept responsibility for his own actions. Most of us are like Luke and Adam. We want to find someone to blame for our problems, our predicaments. But we must play the hand we are dealt, whether it is a cool hand or not. God will give us fresh grace for each day; his mercies are new each morning (Lam. 3:22-23).

Luke closes his prayer. "Yeah, that's what I thought. I guess I'm pretty tough to deal with, huh? A hard case. . . . Yeah. I guess I gotta find my own way." After all his praying he is no better off than when he started. He ends the movie as he begins, not listening to authority. Ironically, his prison number, 37, is a reference to Luke 1:37: "For nothing is impossible with God." It takes faith to believe in the God of the impossible. Luke was a loner whose faith was in himself alone. He had no time or room for faith in others, even God. Loners may be heroes (or antiheroes) in the movies but not in real life. We need God.

Copyright ©2009, Martin Baggs

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