Homework: Cool Hand Luke Analysis

Film Literature assignment from high school. My grade was 103% on this essay, but only because of a 10% curve that was given because everyone did so terrible on it. Beware, I had and still have terrible grammar.  

Cool Hand Luke Analysis
A man, Luke Jackson, is imprisoned for the vandalism of public property.  After escaping multiple times which after each time he is caught because of his lack of a long term plan he is eventually, a character flaw that he has had his whole life, he is eventually killed. His character exemplifies the sixties belief in individuality and the evil of the government through script, plot, lighting and sound, as well as motifs like religion. He becomes a leader, and then a legend through his actions which cause the other prisoners to follow and idolize him, long after his final attempt to escape the prison.
The setting, in the Southern United States is perfect for the theme of the film, because during this time many Americans were beginning to question authority and this would be even more evident in the traditionally more conservative South.   Starting the movie in a small town, with the main character, Luke Jackson, performing a deviant act is a better choice than having him do the same thing in a larger town or city, where this action wouldn’t get as much attention.  The chain gang that Luke Jackson is then sent to, is also a much better choice of setting for the movie than a tradition prison would be. Not only do the prisoners have more freedoms in their activities and how often they are able to congregate, which helps the plot immensely but the guards also have more freedom as well. The freedom to abuse the prisoners mentally, with nights spent in a small box in degrading clothing, as well as physically, with the guards having the unquestioned authority to beat a prisoner almost to death. This type of abuse magnifies the already sympathetic views the audience already has for the prisoners, Luke specifically, who are just trying to fight against their oppressors. The final setting, in an empty church fits to the ever present symbolism of religion with Cool Hand Luke being compared to Jesus.
All of the actors, from the main characters, to those just in the background or only saying a few lines do an amazing job of helping to make the film believable, accurate, and entertaining.  Boss Godfrey is an apathetic, cold contrast to Captain.  Boss Godfrey doesn’t speak throughout the whole movie but his character is established by his mirrored sunglasses and ability to shoot extremely well.  He symbolizes the omniscient American government.  Captain on the other hand spends a lot of time talking with a very pronounced Southern drawl which makes him seem less intelligent to the majority of the audience. This gives the audience the idea that maybe the captor is not as smart as the prisoners, Luke especially. Dragline, the top prisoner starts out as someone who seems like he will be the antagonist causing problems for Luke, and beating him badly in a fight. After this fight though when Luke proves himself Dragline becomes his most devote followers, and becomes more of a naive man who deserves sympathy.
 Luke himself has a lot of interesting things that add to his character. He went in the army as a private and came out the same way even though he had the chance to advance which shows a lot about who he was.  When his mother comes to visit through a conversation with him, she reveals that he has always been this way. This is also reflected by the fact that he although he managed to escape prison three times he is caught each time because he lacks a real plan of escape.  Even his reason for committing the crime that got him sent to the prison doesn’t really have a specific reason.  This lack of focus along with the fact that he only committed a minor crime gives him sympathy from the audience. It makes him seem like an innocent man when the prison guards abuse him. Although he doesn’t plan anything, he never gives up, which quickly earns him the respect of all the other prisoners. This causes prisoners end up idolizing him.
The director uses cuts, sound, and lighting to add emotion and amplify the effect of key scenes. The camera angle of looking down on Luke while he is sprawled across the table in the form of the crucifix after eating an inordinate amount of eggs gives the full effect of what doing this did to him and shows that he is completely alone.  During intense scenes there is a cut to Boss Godfrey’s face, particularly his mirrored sunglasses which just reflect what he is seeing, not allowing any insight into what he is feeling. Boss Godfrey is also shown using a camera angle that is slightly below him making him seem larger than he really is. At the end of the film, lights are used to signify that Luke has died.  In the distance there is a bright light that the vehicle he is in is going towards, and once the vehicle gets there the light dims and becomes red. 
 The music that is used throughout the movie adds depth to the emotions. After Luke’s mother dies, he plays “Plastic Jesus”. Even though he doesn’t say how he is feeling, his song choice, and its lyrics show his emotions. In other parts of the movie folk songs are used as well which would be accurate for the time period. When the men are working on repairing the road the soundtrack “Tar Sequence” is playing and shows the rush that the men are feeling as they try to outpace each other in doing the road work. There are also less noticeable sounds that add to the film, like when Luke is captured and all the men are asking him what happened. It isn’t possible to hear what each person is asking but it helps to show how overwhelmed Luke is by all of the men, as well as their excitement to see him.  Their silence when they think he is broken shows their empathy for Luke without any of them saying a single line.
The plot and script directly affect the film’s theme of anti-conformity and anti-government by showing examples of abuse of power as well as the foolishness of the prison guards.  After Luke escapes, one of his punishments is to dig a ditch and then he is forced to put the dirt back in and then dig the dirt out of the ditch again until he is completely exhausted and begging for the mercy of the guards. This shows how cruel the guards are as well as showing how vulnerable Luke is.  Another example of the guards’ cruelty is when Luke is locked in the box simple because he might escape to go to his mother’s funeral. The script shows their cruelty by admitting that he will be killed if he escapes a third time, which they do without giving him the chance to surrender.  The script shows the foolishness of the guards with Captain’s use of phrases that he is using to just sound more intelligent like “What we have here is failure to communicate” as well as telling him he is going to the box for his own good.  The plot shows the foolishness of the guards by how easily Luke evades them with the dogs.
Luke Jackson after escaping from a chain gang prison multiple times is shot and killed. Even though he was only in the prison for a short time, during his stay he is idolized by the prisoners long after his death.  As the main character Luke exemplifies the sixties belief in individuality and the evil of the government. Using the script, plot and characters the cruelty of the government and the innocence of the prisoners are shown using him. This is magnified by the use of sound, camera angles, editing, and lighting.

Works Cited

Cool Hand Luke. Stewart  Rosenburg . Perf. Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Morgan Woodward. Warner Brothers, 1967. DVD.

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