Cool Hand Luke got released in November of 1967. America was almost four years past Lyndon B. Johnson declaring a War on Poverty, which became such a thing it got capitalized like that. That initial movement tended to focus on poor mountain whites, but rural white people have always tended to have higher poverty rates than urban (and definitely suburban) whites, most likely because the economy doesn’t really tendril out to rural areas the same way it does more populated places. This has always been why poor folks are expected to uproot themselves and go elsewhere.
Early November of 1967, when this movie was released, my father would have been a few weeks away from his 12th birthday. I know for a big chunk of his teen years, my grandmother and that family lived in Cumberland, VA, right behind the Cumberland Restaurant. My grandmother had remarried by then, though my blood grandfather had passed yet. I don’t know the story there, other than it didn’t work out, and my grandfather was a PTSD mess after the Korean War, before PTSD was really something they said about people. At the time, I think he was just seen as more of an abusive drunk than anything else, but also a war hero. By age, my father would’ve been possibly a 7th grader, but on my birth certificate, his education level only says 7th grade, and I know he used to brag that he and two of his friends were in 5th grade three years in a row together, so I don’t know what actual grade he would’ve been at age 12. But he was a rough one, likely due in no large part to the father he had coming back from multiple wars messed up in the ways he was.
Patriarchal norms in our culture tend to have boys identifying and/or latching onto fathers. My dad always fetishized military shit, but in a weird guerrilla anti-government way. He was too young for the Vietnam War, which was the biggest shit in the news at this time, by far, with multiple giant protests happening the month before Cool Hand Luke’s release, including the one where Allen Ginsberg and Abbie Hoffman and them folks said they were gonna levitate the Pentagon.
My mom would’ve been 11 at the time, and I’m not sure where they lived. She was born outside Chicago, but her parents, and two older step-brothers had moved east to Maryland and Virginia, multiple places, early in her life. Again, I don’t know all the details, because at one point my maternal grandmother was either a widower or abandoned or something, living with two young boys in a car. My grandfather also had fallen in love with some women in New Orleans, and had been a natural born wanderlust, but somehow moved back to Chicago, married my grandmother, adopted her sons, and decided to just straight up settle down and take care of family business, no more fucking around, which he did until his death. In fact, with a certain amount of instability and addiction and inherited traumas on both sides of my family tree, I can say without a doubt the combination of my maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were the two forces that made it as stable as it could be, and were the unseen forces that got me typing words into a computer screen right now instead of either being dead or lost in an opiate and/or alcoholic fog.
Luke, of Cool Hand Luke, is a veteran, and the very opening scene which establishes the context of our story is a perfectly appropriate illogical moment for anyone from fucked up environments full of traumas, addictions, chaos, that gives that accumulated version of PTSD, rather than the single event one, because the entirety of the universe’s work in just piling shit up on you reduces your coping window to nothing, and something happens which causes that Fuck It Moment to happen. The Fuck It Moment (such a thing among my people that it is capitalized like the War on Poverty) is when you might know better, you might not, but life is just such a constant shit storm you figure one big final momentary “fuck it”, and do whatever the fuck you’re tired of the motherfuckin’ bullshit mind decides to do. This could be murderous, it could be getting a Greyhound ticket to somewhere you ain’t told nobody, it could be that infamous metaphor of the dad going to the store for a pack of cigarettes and never coming back. But the Fuck It Moment happens every day for a lot of people. Sometimes, you disappear and never come back. Sometimes, there are no immediate consequences, and better sense returns, and you try to fix shit real quick. (In fact, the worst is being emotionally tied too closely to somebody with a lot of minor Fuck It Moments who knows they need to do better but can’t, and always has the heart that says “I’m gonna try to be better” but ain’t built mentally to make those changes. That’s some painful shit to be in, especially when addictions get tied up into that type of person, and they compound actual health problems they can’t control on top of all this other already existent shit.)
And then sometimes we have those stupid criminal Fuck It Moments that do get caught, punished, and change everything forever. That’s the opening scene in Cool Hand Luke, with Luke just cutting up parking meters for the fuck of it, while drunk, and the cops showing up, and he don’t give a fuck, because he’s still in the metaphysical euphoria of the Fuck It Moment. And that’s how Luke ends up in the state prison farm in Florida.
Immediately upon entry, the Captain goes through the line of newbs, explaining the situation to them. “You learn the rules. It’s all up to you.” No Fuck It Moments allowed. And this is the essence of the penal system, that you won’t be given any rehabilitation aid really, it’s up to you to figure it out, but you gotta stop having Fuck It Moments, or we’re gonna fuck you up more. Like when you type it out, it obviously makes no sense at all as a way of changing behavior patterns, but hey, we’re America, and prisons have become a booming industry in the decades since Cool Hand Luke.
One obvious culturally interesting note from this is the segregated society. This prison is all-white – no non-whites appear in this movie in any major roles, except people Luke interacts with while on the run. It’s a completely segregated world where racial relations plays no part at all, so it’s strictly a class system really, with the Captain at the top, the boss (as well as other prison guards, including this one creepy one with a rifle always wearing the standard mirrored sunglasses of a freedombeard type), or a prisoner. America, on top of the racial imbalances, has also always had economic inequality within white folks as well. There’s always been far more white people on welfare than non-white people on it. And I mean, I’m perfect example that even as a poor white originally, you can put on a button-up shirt and some khakis and go sit in a job interview and convince the systems of power that you’re one of them, so you can weasel your way out of it as a white person, so long as Fuck It Moments don’t consume your life in friendly fire from burning bridges. But there’s no shortage of white prisoners in America even today, even though it is disproportionately applied racially. I think sometimes folks forget that even in European history, it wasn’t like it was some great unified homeland of whiteness that then spread out across the planet. A lot of various indigenous European clans and groups got decimated and conquered over the course of what we now know as “Western Culture”.
The cast on Cool Hand Luke is pretty great, obviously with Paul Newman in there at the top, and Harry Dean Stanton as a prisoner, as well as the dad from The Waltons. And of course George Kennedy as the infamous bully turned Mice and Men self-snitching sidekick Dragline.
Early on when the crew is working, clearing the side of a road, there’s the scene of the hot woman washing the car, pushing her tits all over the glass, just generally tormenting these men. I had a job at one point renovating a giant warehouse for a guy named Tillie in Farmville, VA. It’s part of the Green Front complex now, but was just a fucked up warehouse when we fixed it up, which included jacking up the basement a quarter inch every Monday morning to fix a major support beam down there, but that’s all we could lift it without fucking the whole building up or something. Everybody else on Tillie’s crew was on work release from the private jail, all white guys, one of which I went to high school with. One guy on the crew, named Flip, got released during our time renovating it, and I remember him openly talking about the torment of lack of desired sex, how his ol’ lady was coming to pick him up in a borrowed van, and they were probably gonna have to pull over two or three times before he got back to Petersburg from Farmville. “I ain’t had pussy in five years, at least not no woman pussy,” he said at one point.
I mostly painted, with this other dude who went by Soupbone. We had a big ass cherry picker we operated, painting the big industrial windows of the warehouse. In fact, a dude died the previous time the building got painted, having fallen off a ladder, so Tillie made us wear safety harnesses on the cherry picker, “so don’t nobody else die.” Most days were just me and Soupbone, painting away, talking shit, him on the right side, me on the left, working our way through these giant windows with two 16 pane by 16 pane panels, side by side. When we were doing the front side on Main Street, we could see a nearby little grassy park area, and we weren’t far from Longwood University (then only a college), and I remember one day where I saw two young women walking by, beautiful sunny day, and Soupbone, being locked up, spent plenty of time looking down into cars trying to get glimpses of women’s legs and maybe more. I saw these women walking through, as did Soupbone, who was ogling them stealthily. “You know they’re probably going down there to lay in the sun, Soup?”
“Noooo.” He couldn’t believe it even possible. Sure enough, they went to the grassy park, spread out big towels, stripped down to bikinis, and stretched out. 16 x 16 panes, one over the other, side by side, meant we both had to paint 32 panes on the window before we moved. Needless to say, I couldn’t get Soupbone to stop gawking that day, and I remember I painted my 32, and half of his, and even when we finished that one, instead of moving down to the next one like we normally would’ve, Soup made us move further left on the top row to get an even better viewing spot.
Eventually in Cool Hand Luke, with Dragline being the main dude in the prisoner’s ranks, it was only a matter of time before Luke and him had their inevitable fight, which they did. This is the purity of the antihero, so against everything he’s even against the established order of the lowest class. And of course Luke couldn’t beat Dragline, not through physical fighting, so had to go to that metaphysical level of eternal stubborn goat-spirit- refusing to stay down even when whooped, to where onlookers, hoping for the satisfaction of a clear victory, were denied even that, and became uncomfortable, begging Luke to stay down. He never did, the purest form of loser, who loses so bad he can’t even lose right, thus nobody wins. Dragline eventually just walks off.
Luke repeats this losing harder than everybody else motif playing poker, where he bluffs a shitty hand into winning a big pot, saying “Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.” If that’s not tattooed in cursive letters on somebody’s chest or upper back, then I’m highly disappointed in humanity. Shit, I might put it on my leg myself now that I think about it.
In another road work scene, Luke and Dragline get into a competition about who can work the fastest, preparing the road for paving. At first, Dragline’s bitching at Luke to slow it down, but then gets caught up in the competition of it. And at the end, they all realize it’s gonna take the paving crew a couple hours to catch up now, so they get to have two hours of nothing. That’s very much a metaphor for the working life promises of American society, where if you work yourself half to death, you’ll get to retire a little early. Not sure that one’s still there for most of us.
The classic scene from the movie is the egg eating contest, where Luke grossly consumes 50 eggs, gorging himself on fertility? I don’t know. It’s a somewhat disgusting scene to be honest, and whenever I watch it, I can’t eat eggs for like two weeks.
The Man with No Eyes though, is the true danger in this movie. Sure, the Captain wields the power, though he’s mostly unseen. And Dragline rules the pen, but lacks any real power outside of that microcosm. The Man with No Eyes is the enforcer, and oddly reminiscent of today’s actual cultural warriors, always present in the comments online, in their mirrored sunglasses profile pics, which I’ve come to call freedombeards. These are the enforcers of the police state, so the institutional Man with No Eyes from Cool Hand Luke has now become a cultural trend, rocking Punisher stickers on a shiny pick-up truck as a gateway marker before graduating to blue lives mattering and 3 percenter stickers and shittier paramilitary freedombeard police state co-signs. The mirrored sunglasses, both in the movie and with freedombeards, refuse to show the wearer’s own eyes, thus denying a read on their true intentions. It also then just reflects the world it is scanning back at itself, straight up refusing to take part in everything on an equal level. I firmly believe in seeing a person’s true intentions in their eyes, because even the best lying ass conmen got shaky sketchy gazes as they talk their shit. And yet, in the period where Luke is playing the good prisoner, to build up to an escape attempt, there’s a scene where he grabs a rattlesnake, holds it up, and the Man with No Eyes shoots it immediately. This signifies his great aim and ability in enforcing the police state, but also that Luke has no problem with handling snakes. And a dude who won’t ever show you his eyes is most definitely a fuckin’ snake.
After an early escape attempt, the Captain admonishes Luke with “you gonna get used to wearing those chains” right before the famous failure to communicate quote used by Guns-n-Roses in “Civil War”. That’s a pretty perfect white underclass swirl of cultural ephemera right there – Cool Hand Luke, GNR, the concept of the civil war. Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin were both southern Indiana boys, and there’s no stronger Fuck It Moment creating fucked up white underclass homeland than southern Indiana, because it’s not the South, and not Appalachia, and yet has all the metaphysical signs of hopelessness as if it was both. “Civil War” is off Use Your Illusion, which was GNR’s huge leap into releasing something after already being huge. In between Appetite for Destruction’s unexpected explosion, and Use Your Illusion, they released GNR Lies, which has the now abandoned song “One in a Million”. I still find that song intriguing at a cultural level, even as it has been scrubbed from new releases for the overtly racist and homophobic parts, which are of course inexcusable. But there’s also nuance within that, because the song’s not at all a mirrored sunglasses freedombeard mentality, as the voice of the song also hates the police, and that last verse feels more relevant than ever to a lot of white underclass folks who haven’t yet been co-opted politically into the spreading white nationalism:
“Radicals and racists, don’t point your finger at me
I’m a small town whiteboy, just tryna make ends meet
Don’t need your religion, don’t watch that much TV
Just making my living, baby, well that’s enough for me”
Politically this would be pointed at as centrism, not feeling particular affinity for either end, and that tends to seem what the Democratic Party likes to say is how you become successful. I don’t know though, I feel like there’s also this politically disenfranchised underclass that doesn’t really give a fuck. “Just leave me alone and let me survive this bullshit world” mentality. Sadly, I think digital algorithms have driven more and more people of this disenfranchised underclass into bad rabbitholes the past few years, where the “don’t watch that much TV” in the internet age has been weaponized into refusing to read “fake news” but also choosing to still read internet “news”. Not watching that much TV is a refusal of participation, whereas choosing to pick your own favorite sources is still being tricked by all the shit, you just think somehow you’ve made a better decision than the marks.
In Cool Hand Luke, as the threat of Luke running away again, black America is finally mentioned, and that variation on race even within the obvious class separations is mentioned literally, with the boss telling Luke he’d shot black folks plenty before, but never a white man, and didn’t want Luke to be his first. Of course Luke still runs off. A black lady is hanging up clothes in her back yard as Luke, still in prison clothes sneaks through, and she doesn’t even bat an eye, just goes back to hanging up clothes. Two young black boys talk to him on a bridge. “Ain’t you gonna take them stripes off your pants?” One of the kids actually gets Luke the axe he uses to break his chains, and escape to a new life in Atlanta seemingly. Drag and the boys back in jail live vicariously through Luke, and a picture in a magazine of him with two beautiful women. Luke had beaten the system.
But not forever. One night, the guards bring him back in, badly beaten, and all the boys in jail turn their back on Luke, their faint glimmer of hope against getting crushed by all this shit having been beaten. The police state is thick, and unrelenting, and as long as you still live here, the threat of it catching up to you is always there, even more in the digital age, with all the technological amplifications of authority’s ability to monitor and scan.
But then word came of Luke’s mother’s death, and everybody knew he was gonna try to escape again. The sacred bond of mother and son, despite the patriarchal norms, is one we’re supposed to honor. Kinda interesting in context of my own life actually, because I’ve had two levels of falling out with my own mother, to where I’m about 95% certain I’ll never see again until her funeral. I feel like I’m 100% on that, but one never knows what the fuck circumstances cause us to break the eternal grudges of interpersonal Fuck It Moments. I haven’t had notable contact with her in a few years, during some pretty bad times where the love and support of family would’ve been pretty goddamn helpful. I know I’m not alone, in having come to know many people with extremely dysfunctional family trees, where those relationships are broken permanently because they’re too fucking toxic to justify suffering. In 1967, that was not a culturally accepted thing, so Luke’s mother’s death was just without question reason enough for him to escape again. Those familial relationships are far more broken culturally fifty years later.
That last escape has Drag running away with Luke, but Luke splits up with him, and ends up in an old church for the final scenes. In his soliloquy with God, Luke asks, “You made me like I am… just where am I s’posed to fit in?” Out of place, to the end, even with the degenerates who don’t fit in. It’s the classic white underclass antihero I expect we’ll see a lot of throughout this project. It’s the non-English who became part of the Great Britain, the same assorted Celts who also became the outlying settlers in America manifesting destiny, because though they were white, they were expendable. They’ve always been culturally shown to be proud spirit warrior types, but who get crushed by the state in the end. Cool Hand Luke is no different, as cop cars surround the church, and in comes Drag, who had brought them there with his own foolishness. Stupid fucking Dragline, boss of the prisoners, and too goddamned clueless to not end up serving the police state. He promises Luke the guards won’t beat him, “if you give up peaceful.” Drag heads out, and Luke is still inside. Even at night, the Man with No Eyes is wearing his mirrored sunglasses, clean cut because we’re still forty years ahead of contracted private security police state freedombeard era politics.
Luke defiantly echoes the “what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate” line, with a final verbal middle finger to the captain and bosses outside, and The Man with No Eyes shoots him. It’s the tipping point for Dragline, who attacks No Eyes, knocking his glasses off, but our camera view never shows them, and he gets them back on, indignantly, still in proper obedient order to execute upon demand. Luke’s bluff finally got called, and he loses, like all underclass super antiheroes do in our cultural works. And shitty people like me become attuned to taking pride in that, to going out blasting middle fingers at authority, without ever envisioning actually winning. Thus we grow up either assimilating, and becoming a boss for the captain, or we embrace our Fuck It Moment mentality, and assume a destiny of knowing we’re a born loser, eventually, no matter what.