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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Cool Hand Luke by Donn Pearce (1965)
Cool Hand Luke directed by Stuart Rosenberg (1967)
The movie Cool Hand Luke has become one of the classics and is on basically all of those ‘must watch’ movie lists. I watched it for the first time when I was around 9 years old and remember loving it. But I probably just liked it so much because my parents liked it. But still, I feel like any movie with Paul Newman, even if they storyline isn’t the best, you’re still at least going to watch a great performance on his part.
I didn’t realize till last year, that the movie was based on a book! So, naturally, I added it my list. Donn Pearce wrote the book based on his own experience on a chain gang, but we’ll get into that later.
For now, those who don’t know the story of Cool Hand Luke, here’s a synopsis.
Luke is a war veteran who gets arrested for busting the heads off parking meters while intoxicated. He is sentenced to two years on a chain gang in Florida. Technically, it’s a work gang, because the prisoners aren’t actually chained together. Though they are given individual ankle shackles as punishment.
Luke (in the book, his birth name is Lloyd, and is given the name ‘Cool Hand Luke’ while in prison. In the movie his birth name is Luke, and the ‘Cool Hand’ part is given him while in prison) anyway, right from the start, Luke has a confident air about him and proves himself as one who won’t be broken easily. He escapes once and is caught a few days later. He escapes another time and doesn’t come back for four months (though we discover that the majority of that time he was in a different prison). After the second escape, the guards have it out for Luke. They beat him and work him harder, until he “breaks” and begs not be hit again, saying that he’s “got his mind right”. After that, not only does Luke no longer talk back, but he even becomes the runner for the guards. Getting things for them, rushing to their aid when they need him to fetch something. Then one day while working on the road, because this new runner job gives him access to the inside of the truck to get stuff, while going to the truck he hops in the driver’s seat and drives off with a fellow prisoner in the passenger seat.
This escape lasts a few hours, but they are caught while inside an empty church. Luke ultimately ends up getting shot and killed, while the other prisoner is taken back to the chain gang. His memory lives on as a symbol of hope to the other prisoners. His small and big acts of unconformity, help the other prisoners feel like they have more control in their lives, while also lifting their spirits with his shenanigans.
Thoughts on the Book
As I said above, the book is fiction but is based on Pearce’s real-life experience on a chain gang.
Pearce also served in WW2, which Luke does as well. I don’t know if Luke’s war stories are based on Pearce’s on experience though.
After the war, Pearce became a safe cracker, but was caught and sentenced to prison. His book was published in 1965, and the movie was released soon after, in 1968. Pearce wrote the screenplay and had a non- speaking role as a prisoner named Sailor. I assumed that since he wrote the screenplay, and was in the movie, that it had his blessing. However, in 1989, in an interview he said, “I seem to be the only guy in the United States who doesn’t like the movie. Everyone had a whack at it. They screwed it up ninety-nine different ways.” One of the things he says to have not liked, was that Newman was too scrawny for the role of Luke.
As far as the book, I thought the first half was actually kind of boring. It’s not focused on Luke, so much as just life on the chain gang. It’s interesting from a historical perspective, but from a novel stand point, rather than setting up the location, characters and mundane bits of life, I was wished he would just get into the storyline.
Luke is introduced in the first quarter of the book, but it doesn’t get very interesting until halfway, which is when Luke starts planning his escapes.
I also didn’t like the sexist aspects of the book, I get that the characters were following are a bunch of men in prison, so of course there will be derogatory sexual talk about women. Having said that, it’s not like the book gets graphic, but still. There’s also some racist remarks in there which I guess also shouldn’t be surprising since it takes place in the south in the 1950’s.
Paul Newman is of course Cool Hand Luke. While reading this, how could I not be picturing Newman in my head?? His acting is on point, as usual. Two scenes that especially stand out are when he’s playing Plastic Jesus on the banjo after he hears about his mom dying, and the scene where he begs the guard not to hit him anymore. But also, the scene when he gets the guys to work fast with tarring the road and getting them into it, so they finish early was also great. Really, he’s just amazing in the whole thing.
George Kennedy also seems perfectly cast as Dragline, the main supporting character. Once again though, I’m biased since I had watched the movie prior to reading the book. Kennedy campaigned heavily to be nominated for an Academy Award for his role and it paid off! He won for best supporting actor, which in turn led to him earning more money for future movies, and he was also offered more diverse roles rather than always being cast as the bad guy.
Strother Martin plays the Captain and has the most iconic line from the movie (which I mentioned in my podcast for True Grit) “what we have here is failure to communicate’. This line however doesn’t appear in the book. Martin though does a great job, he really isn’t in it all that much, but when he is, he does well.
Jo Van Fleet is in the movie for about 5 minutes and plays Luke’s mom. She does a wonderful job in her brief scene. Their conversation was eight pages of dialogue, and they only had one day to film it, which isn’t much time for a scene with that much talk. However, since Newman and Van Fleet were both theater actors, they memorized the lines quickly and the filming went off without a hitch.
Morgan Woodward almost doesn’t seem mentioning, since he literally only has on line in the whole movie. But he plays Boss Godfrey, the guard who wears the mirrored sunglasses. The book often talks about his sunglasses, and the movie does a great job with his character and what he symbolizes. Apparently, he had more dialogue in the script, but Rosenberg felt that his voice didn’t fit the look, so he cut down his lines and he says only one sentence in the whole thing.
There are of course about 15 other actors playing the guards and prisoners, one of the most notable ones being Dennis Hopper. The acting by everyone is well done, and I can’t think of any complaints I have with the supporting cast.
The book starts in the present day, with a man whose nickname is Sailor telling us about life on the chain gang and describing the events of the morning. At bean time, the guards have them eat near a church, and the prisoners ask Dragline to tell about Luke because they all know that this church is where he died. The book then goes back to in time to when Luke joined them. There are a couple times it comes back to current time, then goes back in time once more.
The movie doesn’t have any of this, and instead starts with Luke’s arrest. At the very end of the movie, it shows the prisoners near the church and Dragline telling them about Luke when he died, the same way it shows in the beginning of the book.
The inmate Sailor exists in the movie, but I don’t recall his name ever being said in the movie, it just shows him in the credits. He is played by author Donn Pearce, which is very fitting, since Sailor was the narrator of the book.
Luke’s arrest is also a tad different, because in the book he is taking the heads off parking meters and a cop comes up to him thinking he might be a city employee working late. He asks him what he’s doing, and Luke has a matter of fact reply. He then walks to his truck, and goes driving off, causing the cop to chase after him. Whereas in the movie, the cop basically just arrests him right off the bat.
Speaking of the parking meters, Newman actually took the heads off meters in Lodi, California and for years they kept the street that way, so people could come and see the street made famous from the movie.
When Luke arrives at the prison, the movie introduces all the other men that are new. In the book it just talks about Luke. It talked about the other newcomers as a whole, but didn’t get too specific. There is also a scene in the movie where they mess with one of the new guys while on the way to work and the new guy ends up being put in the box. This wasn’t in the book.
The movie also has Drag not like Luke in the beginning. Drag is sort of the ‘leader’ of the group, and Luke will show him up. So from the start there’s some tension between them. It even gets to the point where they box each other to settle their differences. After this happens, Drag respects him and they are friends from there on out. In the book, he and Drag never have any irritation towards each other. It never says any specific event that causes them to be friends, I think Drag was just attracted to his confident spirit and that drew him to become friends with Luke.
Early on in the movie, there is the scene where they are working on the side of the road near a house and a woman comes out to wash the car and drives the guys crazy. In the book there was a scene similar to this, but it happened a little later on. In the book, it was a teenage girl who walks home, and seeing the men, going inside and puts on a bikini then comes out and sunbathes.
In both book and movie, Luke’s mom, brother and nephew come to visit him. In the movie the mom is very sickly and talks about how she’s going to die soon. They also mention Luke’s dad and she says how he much he made me laugh, but Luke never knew him because he ran off. In the book, his mom wasn’t sick, and she does mention the dad. In the book he had been a preacher, but then ran off and left them. Because of that incident, Luke no longer believes in God, seeing as his dad was a preacher who was a hypocrite. Also, in the movie, the mom mentions a girl Luke had been dating once upon a time and how she had liked her. Luke comments that she ended up going off with the guy in a convertible. This is talked about in the book, but it actually happens during Luke’s second escape. He tells the guys he was dating a girl for a bit, but she ditched him for someone in a nice car.
In both movie and book, they give Luke his banjo when visiting. The movie has Luke strum the banjo here and there, but he only actually plays it and sings once. In the book though he often plays the banjo and will make up his own songs. The songs he sings are often about the war, and that’s how we learn about his past. His banjo playing is another way that Luke becomes someone who lifts their spirits and gives them hope. There is a line from the book that says,
So, we worked our way through the spring, building our Time on The Hard Road. But music had come into our lives and we began our days with a new feeling, not at all afraid of the heat and the labor, the ant and the mosquito bites, the cramps and callouses. For Luke’s music had taught us to understand the melody of the leg chains, the rhythm of the Floorwalker’s feet, the wind of the passing traffic. And for once all was harmony. We knew that our yells to count off, to pour it out, to move on up or dig a hole were just part of a prolonged and complicated hymn.
In the movie the only time he truly plays the banjo is when he hears about his mom’s death. As said above, in the movie she was sick, so it didn’t come as a big surprise. In the book though she has a sudden heart attack. In both, after getting the news, Luke walks to his bunk and quietly plays a banjo while crying. For the movie, I guess they were going to dub the playing and the scene was scheduled to be shot early in filming. However, Newman decided he wanted to actually learn to play so it was pushed back a few weeks. When they tried filming it Newman just couldn’t get it down. He insisted on wanting to do it himself though and this led to an argument between Newman and director Stuart Rosenberg. Finally, the next to last day of shooting, they tried filming it again and according to George Kennedy the atmosphere was “tense, electrically charged and quiet”. After Newman finished he said once more that he could do it again and even better, Rosenberg replied saying no one could do it better.
After the death of Luke’s mom, Luke is put ‘in the box’. In the movie, for the sake of the audience, the Captain explains that he’s going in the box because when a man’s mom dies, he gets ‘rabbit’ in his legs and makes him want to try and escape. In the book, he doesn’t explain this, because the narrator explains that they all know the reason. In the movie he’s in the box and the guard walking him to it says that he’s sorry and is just doing his job. Luke replies that doing it cause it’s your job doesn’t make it any better. The book doesn’t have this exchange. Also, in the book, when they open the door for Luke the next day, he’s still laying down. The guard yells that he needs to stand when they open the door, and they keep him in there another day as punishment. The next day they open the door and Luke is standing there and says to “shut the damn door” so the guard just shuts him in there again. Luke’s defiance continues for the rest of the week, where he stays in the box and has little to nothing to eat. In the movie he is just in there for like a day, and they let him out and there’s no fuss.
Both book and movie have the scene where they are shoveling sand onto the fresh tar and they talk about what hard work it is. The book says that this work though, was Luke’s favorite. He works faster and gets the guys to work fast too. They end up finishing in record time and finish early. Once again, Luke being an inspiration and helping them feel more in control of their lives and “stickin it to the man”.
This movie has lots of famous scenes, arguable the most famous though, is when Luke eats 50 eggs in one hour. In both, this comes about because Drag is bragging about how much Luke can eat. One of the prisoners accuses Drag of exaggerating, so Luke chimes in and says he could eat 50 eggs, and the rest is history.
The book builds up more the fact that Luke could eat so much more than anyone else. There is another inmate, Curly, who had been known as eating the most, but one day he and Luke have an eating competition of sorts, and it ends in a draw. After that, Curly gives him one of his spoons, which is a bigger soup spoon and helps you to shovel more in your mouth than the normal spoons. The movie doesn’t have this build up, but after he eats the eggs, one of the inmates does place a spoon besides him.
And as far as the credibility of someone eating 50 eggs in an hour-it can and has been done.
In both we have the escape that happens during the 4th of July, and the movie follows the book pretty close with that.
When Luke gets caught, in the movie he tells them he was caught because he stole a car then a cop pulled up while he was at a light and wondered what a rough guy like him was doing driving a nice car. The book is a little different, he says he stole the car (which had groceries in the back, so he was able to have all sorts of foods to eat) then after driving a while he pulls into a bar parking lot and switches license plates with another car. However, in Florida at that time license plate numbers that were given is a certain county started with a 1. Then if the car exceeded a certain weight, it would have a w after the one. Luke switched plates with a car bigger than his, so he had a w when he shouldn’t have. So, when a cop drove up he noticed the wrong plate, then noticed that Luke was in prison garb and arrested him.
Then we have Luke’s second escape. This is the famous string escape, with the line, “I’m shakin’ it here, boss! I’m shakin’ it!” which is a line we quote often in my family.
He is gone for months this time around and he sends them a magazine which has a picture of him with two girls. He eventually returns and, in the book, when they get a chance to talk to him alone, he tells them he had gotten a job and was seeing a girl. She wanted to get married though, and he wasn’t making enough money. She left him for someone else and he took it hard. He started drinking and eventually got arrested for being drunk and disorderly. When they took his prints, they saw he was an escaped convict and he was resentenced and returned to the chain gang. When they ask him about the picture he says he used a week’s worth of pay to have that photo taken because he wanted to send them something to cheer them up. And I’m sure it made him feel better, knowing that they would think he was living it up.
In the movie, Luke is brought in after having been beat up, and while he’s clearly not feeling great, they start asking him all these questions. He tells them the picture was a phony, but they keep at him saying how couldn’t it be a phony. Luke eventually gets up to get away from them and yells at them to stop living off of him.
In book and movie, Luke is basically tortured by the guards until he “breaks”. The movie has the scene where they have him dig, then undig a hole. During which time he begs them to stop hitting him. In the movie they are out on the road and a guard is beating him when he begs him to stop.
After this Luke becomes a teacher’s pet. In the movie there is the scene where he is fetching the rifle for Godfrey and Godfrey shoots the turtle. This actually happened early in the book before he runs away. Luke isn’t the one who is fetching things for the boss though. Instead, the other guy is getting the rifle, and goes and gets the turtle. The guard has the turtle cleaned out so that he can cook it for lunch. The head gets cut off, but even though it’s a severed head, because it’s a snapping turtle, the head still moves. When Luke puts a stick up to it, it snaps at the stick and it bites so hard that the stick breaks. It’s actually kind of a gross scene the way it’s described, since it’s a severed turtle head and all. Anyway, in the movie Luke goes and gets the dead turtle, after which he hops in the truck and drives away. The book is similar, where Luke was getting stuff from the guard while out on the road, then he and Drag hope in the car and take off.
Throughout the book there are talks about Luke’s lack of faith, beginning with the history of his dad. In both, there is the scene where it is getting stormy and he starts talking to God. Dragline, who believes in God says that he shouldn’t do that, and that God might strike him down with lightening. Luke tempts God, saying why don’t you strike me down.
Later, when he runs away and is in the church he once again starts talking to God. In the book he and Dragline never split up, so when Drag hears him talking to God again, he tells him he shouldn’t say such blasphemous things in a church. Drag even gets on his knees and starts sincerely praying because he is scared of being punished for what Luke is saying.
In the movie, Luke and Drag split up so Luke is in the church alone. He starts talking to God, and even gets down on his knees at one point and sincerely prays, this is very different than the book. After his prayer, he hears the cop cars come up. Drag comes in and says that the cops found him, and that he has negotiated with them, that he will show them where Luke is, and they can both just go back to the chain gang and continue as if there runaway never happened. In the book, they hear the cops show up, and Drag hides. Similar in both book and movie, Luke is in a window or doorway and is shot in the neck. In both, they say there are going to drive him to the inmate hospital, which is over an hour away and they know Luke will die while on the way there.
In both, it ends with present day, Drag wearing his ankle shackles, telling the others about Luke and we see how he lives on as a symbol of hope.
Book or Movie?
When it comes to which is better, I just have to go with the movie. I know this may just be because I saw the movie before reading the book and it’s just such a classic. But honestly, I don’t know if I would have stuck with the book had it not been for the movie. The first half was just kind of slow moving, though like I said, in a historical aspect it’s interesting enough.
The acting by everyone is just so spot on, and Newman gives such a great performance all the way around. Ultimately, I actually don’t think I would recommend the book. Unless you are just a huge fan of the movie, and you enjoy reading, in which case sure go ahead and give the book a read.