August 18, 2012

Queer Review: Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Cool Hand Luke
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writers: Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson. Based upon the novel by Donn Pearce.
Cast: Paul Newman, George Kennedy, J.D. Cannon, Lou Antonio, Robert Drivas, Strother Martin, Jo Van Fleet, Clifton James, Morgan Woodward, Luke Askew

A classic flick about a man sent to prison that mixes elements of the Christ story with Rebel Without a Cause, plus a few standard queer subtexts .

After a drunken bender where he vandalized a bunch of parking meters, Luke (Paul Newman) is sentenced to work on a chain gang. At first an outsider, Luke is eventually accepted, and then revered by the other prisoners. But when Luke's mother dies, he is not only barred from attending her funeral, the captian puts him in The Box for several days to prevent him from running. This only increases Lukes' desire to fight the system, and he makes several daring escape attempts, each one more likely to lead to his demise.

The Queering
While I was at times reminded of James Deans' Jim Stark from Rebel Without a Cause, Luke more often invokes the image of Christ. Luke, who starts the movie out as an outsider, ends up obtaining a following of dedicated disciples before turning into an outright martyr. In one scene, where he eats 50 eggs for a dare, leaves him in the classic crucifix pose, arms outstretched and his legs crossed at the ankles. Another scene, where he curses God during a rainstorm and asks to be struck down, is highly baptismal in nature.

Ultimately, Luke is a rebel, fighting against a system he does fully understand. In a very general sense, he can be read as a queer hero. Certainly, the counter culture movement that would give birth to the Stonewall Riots in 1969 is very much alive in Luke.

When the jail Captain utters the films most iconic line: "What we have here Gentlemen is a failure to communicate" it quickly comes clear that even the Captain does not fully understand the message is he trying to convey. He certainly opposes anarchy and rule breaking, but what does he stand for? Society often seems to consider rebels to have no cause. We ask what do the Lukes/Jim Starks/Occupy Protestors/hippies of this world want? But very rarely do we ask ourselves what is the point of order when it must be enforced with abject cruelty?

Other subtle queer subtexts abound. For starters, Dragline, who becomes Lukes' most devoted disciple and who escapes with Luke on the last escape attempt, is constantly ordering the other prisoners to strip off their shirts during their long forced work details in the hot sun.

In fact, there are few scenes where any of the prisoners are wearing shirts. As a result, I had difficulty thinking of a film with so much exposed male flesh -- although outside of brief glimpse at a set of buttocks, there are no naked private parts on display. The HBO television series Oz comes close, if you consider most of the first several seasons.

As for the acting, Paul Newman is his naturally charismatic self, while George Kennedy gives a memorable performance as Dragline, who first fights against Luke before becoming a follower. As the captain, Strother Martin oozes a subtle menace more frightening than the rattlesnake that the prisoners discover on an open road.

Overall, Cool Hand Luke is a classic movie that delivers a powerful message about outsiders, rebels, and the price we subject ourselves to in order to repel chaos.

Stick em in the freezer or an icebox, do whatever you have to see Cool Hand Luke. If the price of seeing Cool Hand Luke was having to eat 50 eggs, it would still be worth paying.

The Rating
*** out ****


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