There are “Cool Hand Luke” spoilers in this post. I don’t say that so much to warn you if you haven’t seen the film, but to shame you.
Maybe I’m just paranoid, but I seem to see a lot of Boss Godfrey’s walking around these days. You remember Godfrey, don’t you? One of the great silent tough guys of film. Tough isn’t exactly right, though. There’s usually a tenderness alongside toughness. Godfrey, was just meanness. He had those mirrored sunglasses which kept the snakes from slithering out of his eye cavities. There was a chilling simplicity to him. As simple as his bolt action rifle. He was not a thinking man. He had no use for judge nor jury. By the time a man stood in front of him, with legs in chains, all that had been done with and only the years ahead in irons mattered. And in those years, the only thing that seemed to get to him was rabbit.
Paul Newman’s character in Cool Hand Luke is the Great American Adolescent. He’s Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield and Randle McMurphy. We love these characters and I believe they remain crucial guides to how we see ourselves: underdogs, rebels, freewheelin’ thinkers cut from slugs and snails and puppy dog tails.
It’s all fun house mirrors, though. I mostly see Godfrey and Ratchet reflecting back, not Luke and Randle. There’s an underlying sense that this adolescence is best only in fantasy, in terms of the good ol’ days when you really whooped it up. Hey, don’t tell me about Huck. I WAS Huck! Was is the key word it would seem. Try collaborating at your office tomorrow. Try pushing someone down the Mississippi where real adventure waits. You know what will happen. It happens all the time. So much so that it’s boring. Electric plugs get strapped to your skull, a meat-head punches you in the proverbial jaw.
An odd twinning effect happens between Luke and Godfrey. Put a hat on Luke. Have him wear it low over his eyes. Give him mirrored sunglasses. Who do you see? It’s Godfrey. It’s Luke lobotomized. A man who shoots instead of speaks. A man who knows only to shackle. Maybe it’s through controlled education, or maybe it’s the lack thereof,
Ain’t heard much worth listening to yet. Just everybody handing out rules.
Maybe it’s through healthcare or the lack thereof,
Drinking it up here, boss?
Maybe it’s just getting someone’s dirt out of a hole. No matter, just don’t stop shaking that bush.
Earlier in the film when Godfrey gets his proper introduction he’s shooting a crow. One of the new inmates asks “don’t he ever talk?” Luke, looking at the dead bird, responds, “I think he just said something.”
The scene is significant as it is a definitive and prophetic sign about the world these men on the chain gang have found themselves living in. In contrast, it’s the response Luke doesn’t get when yelling to the heavens during a sudden and dangerous downpour that seems the loudest. Both foreshadow Luke’s final plea in an old chapel near the film’s end where, once again, the only response is Godfrey’s rifle as he puts a bullet through Luke’s throat.
With that crack of the rifle Luke grows up. That wild, beautiful, handful of nothing is gone and, to some, it must feel as though the world has been sent right once more. In the shots echo we can tell people what language to speak, who to vote for, what church to attend, and even, what book not to read. Seems like an awful lot of people are telling us to grow up these days.
Maybe I am paranoid, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong.