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I'm Here Shakin', Boss
by Jon Schuller

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I've written about prison movies, new and old, and how society (and the film industry) views people who break laws and are then incarcerated. Death penalty discussions have lasted for many decades and any time the subject comes up, we are faced with what are the alternatives and how long is too long. Programs that help teach prisoners a skill or trade are still in effect. But there was a time when prisoners served full, hard time sentences, with few or no privileges accorded or even considered. In the South, chain gangs were the norm and prison farms housed and fed the inmates. The practicalities of using prisoners to clean up roads, swamps and other public facilities were considered a good solution by public officials because the inmates didn't get paid (if they did, in rare instances, the money was small and didn't go very far). Many World War II vets came home, mentally and physically debilitated, unable to find jobs. If they did work, some of the jobs were menial and paid little. We still have similar problems today with vets from Iraq and Afghanistan.
On November 1, 1967, Cool Hand Luke, starring Paul Newman and George Kennedy, opens to the public. The supporting cast is a "who's who" of veteran and new actors: Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, J.D. Cannon, Morgan Woodward, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Wayne Rogers, Clifton James, Ralph Waite, Dennis Hopper,
Joe Don Baker, Lou Antonio and Anthony Zerbe.
We see one decorated veteran, Lucas "Luke" Jackson (Newman) drunkenly cuts off the tops of parking meters and is sentenced to 2 years on a Florida chain gang, run by a tough warden, The Captain (Martin), and his second-in-command, Walking Boss Godfrey (Woodward). Obey the rules, says Carr, the house boss (James), and everything will be fine. If not, you spend time in The Box.

Luke's an independent type, refuses to follow anyone's rules and eventually finds himself in a fight with a much larger opponent, Dragline (Kennedy), the top dog among the prisoners. Obviously outmatched, and getting badly beat up, Luke doesn't quit, even though he's knocked to the ground several times. He wins the admiration of Dragline and the other prisoners. Dragline "adopts" him and christens him "Cool Hand Luke."

Luke gets a visit from his sick mother, Arletta (Van Fleet) in the bed of a pick-up truck and his attitude brightens. He starts to act more cheerful and his fellow prisoners (and the guards) get into the spirit when they're assigned to tar a rural road. Luke spurs them to act more quickly so they'll have a whole day to relax. But he gets word that his mother has died as the Captain sends him to the Box to keep Luke from attempting an escape to the funeral. He escapes anyway and is quickly recaptured. Boss
Godfrey, whose eyes are behind sunglasses, has taken a special interest in Luke as his fellow prisoners warn Luke not to taunt the boss too much. The Captain addresses all the men: "What we've got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it. Well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men."

Finally, Luke escapes again, pulling on bushes with a string from far away as he slips off quietly. He reaches a gas station, cuts his chains with an axe and spreads chili and curry powders to make the dogs lose his scent. Dragline gets a photograph in the mail showing Luke sitting between two beautiful women. All of the prisoners think Luke is some sort of god and, of course, Dragline is his mentor, basking in Luke's magical powers. But eventually, Luke is recaptured and the Captain puts him into 2 sets of leg irons, with a stern warning that any further escape attempts will end with Luke being shot dead. Luke acts humble and always looks and sounds scared as he humbly helps the guards and Boss Godfrey. The prisoners believe Luke has been broken, humbled at last; they rip up the famous photograph and watch in amazement as the once-tough, independent Luke becomes the obsequious, groveling, almost begging Luke.

But Luke's new "attitude" again masks his all-consuming need for freedom as he steals a truck from a road gang project also grabbing the keys from the other trucks there. Dragline
jumps on Luke's vehicle and they both wind up at an old church at night. Luke insists Dragline go off by himself because he doesn't think the Captain and Boss Godfrey are going to bring him back. Luke talks to G-d, asking him why he's always in a mess as police cars arrive at the church. Dragline implores Luke to surrender, telling him the police won't hurt him. But Luke makes another mocking speech. Boss Godfrey shoots Luke. The local police want to take him to the hospital nearby but the Captain says no, he'll go back to the prison hospital, many miles away. Luke's survival is questionable. Later on, we see the prisoners working and talking about Luke again, and we know he's gone for good this time.

Cool Hand Luke was an immediate hit, winning awards for the actors and creating imagery that was at once easily recognizable as well as more subtle. Lalo Schifrin's score was both 60s cool and countrified. The injection of traffic signs and traffic signals as well as the hints of Christian symbolism were not lost on the critics. The anti-war movement against the Vietnam War was also part of the film's constant struggle between authority and freedom. It was Paul Newman, though, who became a symbol of a man who's lost his way and keeps trying to find the right road time after time. His infectious smile and stubborn attitude brought Luke to life and made him a recognizable figure. Here we are, 50 years later, and this film still holds our attention and its imagery is still magic.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.


Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Maybe This Door Will Get Me Out of Here?

On the Surface, It's Calm. Below, it's Deadly

Maybe It Really Did Happen?

A Different Perspective on War

Some Movie Scenes Still Make Me Emotional

All Columns


Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for over 26 years.I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 47 years (as of December 22, 2015) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).



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If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.


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