Saturday, April 14, 2007

Cool Hand Luke

I was raving to Tulsa the other day (in person, for once, rather than just over the cyber-waves) about 'Cool Hand Luke' - one of my all-time favourite films. Not that it is the best film I've ever seen in cinematic terms, but it is a story that strikes a deep chord within me. And it does feature a young-ish Paul Newman at his most infectiously charming.

It is, of course, the classic 'doomed Messiah' motif - an almost identical plot, in fact, to 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest': the charismatic newcomer gains acceptance among the downtrodden members of an oppressed, captive community, and becomes a catalyst for change, inspiring and energizing them to rediscover their sense of self-worth. Somehow, though, I've always much preferred 'Luke' - partly, I think, because he is a more engaging, more likeable character than MacMurphy; and partly because the mental illness on parade in 'Cuckoo's Nest' - and deployed largely for humorous effect - always makes me feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Both films end tragically (I hope this is not a SPOILER - I'm assuming that just about everyone has seen both of these films), but there's one intriguing difference. The uniquely moving part about MacMurphy's demise in 'Cuckoo's Nest' is that he has the opportunity to make good his escape at the end, but chooses to stay and confront his nemesis, the loathsome Nurse Ratched. What affects me most about 'Cool Hand Luke' is that Luke's seemingly indestructible spirit is finally broken by the system: subsequently, his buddies all fondly suppose that his period of half-witted subservience was just an act to lull the prison staff into reducing their watchfulness, to help him contrive another opportunity to escape; but, as he confides to his best friend, Dragline, near the end of the film, "No, they really did break me there for a while. I was gone."

I first saw this when I was only about 10 or 12 years old (BBC 1's 'Monday Film' series during my '70s childhood was probably the great formative influence of my life) and it has haunted me ever since. In fact, I think I've probably only ever seen it once or twice subsequently, and not for many years now. (Only once have I ever seen it in a DVD shop here in China; but the one-and-only copy was snapped up by my buddy, Big Frank - who shortly afterwards took it back to England with him, and then lost it! It tops the list of great films I have never been able to acquire here, but am constantly on the lookout for.)

Possibly the best prison film ever made (yes, there are other candidates - but 'The Shawshank Redemption' is not one of them!). Certainly the best "Don't let the bastards grind you down" film ever - and that has always been my watchword. (The early boxing match scene - where Luke simply refuses to accept that he is beaten, even when he can scarcely stand up any more - has been a powerful inspiration to me throughout my life; I suspect it is largely responsible for the streak of stubborn determination in me - which so often surprises, and occasionally alienates people.)

It has had other, less 'wholesome' influences on me too. It is probably responsible for my abiding fascination with the game of poker. And while at University, I was once tempted to try to emulate the famous egg-eating bet (50 hard-boiled eggs to be consumed in 1 hour!) with Cadbury's Creme Eggs; luckily, wiser counsels prevailed!

Fabulous, fabulous film. If, by some chance, you haven't ever seen it (Tulsa?), place it at the top of your 'to do' list.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

sadly, you are right... Cool Hand Luke is no where to be found (locally). Out shopping today and every dvd-man responded to my request with a blank stare.

I may have to ask my sister to Netflix it for me next time I visit.