“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”
Cool Hand Luke follows its titular character as he is arrested and placed on a chain gang for two years. Similar to Shawshank Redemption’s portrayal of prisons, this one also includes a nasty warden and guards that are willing to beat the men. While this movie is less extreme, and the prisoners are more laid back, it is still a story about one man who refuses to let the system win. Luke is in jail for drunken property damage. He is a war veteran with several honors and medals, but he was busted from sergeant to private. It is immediately clear that Luke is not like anyone else. He is quiet, with a quick, dry wit. His unwillingness to back down during a brawl early on earns him the respect of his peers. The thing we learn from this fight is that Luke, quite literally, will always pick himself up.
Luke doesn’t really fit into society. This is especially clear when his mother, dying, comes to visit him and they discuss how he never really found a place to settle down. He also explicitly denies the existence of God, and has several mocking conversations (and one serious one) with him throughout the movie. Especially for an early 20th century rural Southern area, this is odd. Most people, even prisoners and morally bankrupt wardens wouldn’t claim God didn’t exist. Luke refuses to conform to prison life and prison rules. He’s impulsive and cheerful, bets on nothing, and he ate 50 eggs in one hour. The movie transforms him into a folk tale, really a folk hero to those that were imprisoned alongside him.
When Luke’s mother dies, the warden locks him up in the box (solitary confinement) to keep him from running until she is buried. It is after this Luke later makes his first attempt at escape. He is caught shortly after, and this where things start to go wrong. He is given a set of ankle chains. His next attempt gets him farther, but again he is caught. Luke is beaten, given two sets of chains, and forced to continue working even when everyone else is done. The warden and the “bosses” break him, but not permanently. Luke acts like an obedient prisoner, serving as errand boy on the road for the head guard, “The man with no eyes,” right up until he steals a truck (along with the keys for the rest of the car.
Luke has proven that no matter what he will always get back up. We cheer for him and pray for his escape because he never seeks to harm anyone. His final prayer to God shows regret even for the people he killed in the war. But he doesn’t know what to do with the hand he was dealt anymore. He is an outcast, someone people admire, but don’t strive to be. So the police, the warden, and the prison guards corner him in an old church. Luke’s friend Dragline, who escaped with him, begs him to come quietly, as the guards have agreed not to beat him or add too much to their sentence if he comes quietly. Luke’s response is to go to a window and use the warden’s own words against him: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” And because they couldn’t break him, the head guard shoots him. The prison was the last place an outcast like Luke could go, but he didn’t fit there either, so they had to kill him. We are left with his story though, the story of a man that couldn’t be beaten, that always played it cool.