Cool Hand Luke (1967) is a major entry in the American tradition of chain gang films, a tradition that extends back to Mervyn Leroy's I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). The American South provides a logical setting for the film, since chain gangs are associated with the South, though in fact they were used all over the nation. The South is also a suitable setting for this story because of its reputation for strict enforcement of law and order and its purported lack of sympathy for lawbreakers and the down and out. Race is not an issue in Cool Hand Luke, in part because in the 1960s most Southern chain gangs were segregated. The absence of race as an overt theme simplifies matters for the filmmakers, perhaps. Yet race can be viewed as a subtle theme in how the film portrays the struggle of individuals, specifically Luke himself, against a system that does not favor people who do not fit neatly into a predetermined, predefined place.
The real theme of Cool Hand Luke is the individual against the system. The opening shots of the film show repeated images of a garish red sign reading "VIOLATION." We next see a drunken Luke struggling to twist the head off a parking meter. He's arrested for this small act of vandalism, for "defacing public property." The film doesn't argue that he should not have faced arrest. Instead it argues that the degree of his punishment is extreme, and that society's insistence on conformity, its intolerance of individuals, is extreme as well.
Luke is the son of a lower-class family. We briefly meet his dying mother when she comes to visit him at the prison farm. Clearly, whatever progress he makes in life has been of his own doing. We learn that he has always had difficulty fitting in, especially since his traumatic experiences in war. He apparently suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome, an affliction for which there was no name when the film was made. He is, in effect, a psychically wounded war veteran.
Cool Hand Luke has much in common with other films about men imprisoned or trapped or confined in an oppressive environment. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Stalag 17 (1953) are examples. It is also linked in this sense to Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward. In such works, the prison or the hospital ward, and the individual's struggle with the institutional structures and authority they embody, become an emblem of society at large.
Cool Hand Luke is an episodic film that follows Luke's entry into the prison camp, his adjustment there, his growing conflict with prison authorities, and three escape attempts. The inmates who accept their confinement are portrayed as content with their lot. They are shown having parties, dancing, gambling, and engaged in other activities with prison personnel standing nearby, nodding approval. The main representative of this group is Dragline, played by George Kennedy. He's been in the camp longer than most of the prisoners, and he sees the way to survival through complying with prison rules. He's worried by Luke's rebelliousness, and in various ways he urges Luke to go along with the rules. Dragline is not a coward, but he clearly has a different attitude towards life, towards survival, than Luke. The men like Dragline may be more likely to survive the prison camp, but they do so at the cost of their individuality, their identity. Luke may ultimately retain his identity, but it comes at the cost of his life.
Contrasted against scenes of prisoner camaraderie are those in which Luke wages his struggle against the prison authorities, against authority in general. Perhaps the most famous scene in the film is the egg-eating wager: where inmates bet on whether Luke can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in a sitting. Paul Newman as Luke is the center of the film, which is built around his character rather than around some coherent central narrative that moves the film forward. The distinction between a film of character and a film of narrative may be minor. But the film is memorable because of Luke's character and because of his struggles against authority, rather than because of any narrative involving other characters in the film. We could imagine the film with a different slate of secondary characters, with a significantly different narrative, but we could not imagine it without the character of Luke or even without Paul Newman himself. Cool Hand Luke is not a groundbreaking film, but Newman's performance as Luke is one of the best of his career.
One motif in the film concerns how the inmates live vicariously through Luke's rebelliousness. They enjoy talking about his exploits and they clearly feed off his resistance to prison authorities. They compensate for their own lack of resolve and strength by drawing on the example he provides. When he escapes from prison, they talk about him while he is away, and when he is captured and brought back they enjoying hearing about his exploits. After the egg-eating contest, Luke lies prone on a sheet of plywood, his arms stretched out to either side. The symbolic posture suggests crucifixion, and there is clearly a sense in Luke's character of the savior who suffers for those who believe in him.
After his second escape attempt, Luke is returned to the camp severely beaten. His entire demeanor has changed. He shouts at the other inmates when they brag about him: "Oh come on. Stop beatin' it. Get out there yourself. Stop feedin' off me. Get out of here. I can't breathe. Give me some air." When he's forced repeatedly by the prison guards to dig a ditch and then fill it in, he finally breaks down and tearfully begs the guards not to beat him. In anger, the inmates turn against him, refuse to help him when he collapses to the floor, and tear up souvenirs of him they have saved.
The prison guard who wears opaque sun glasses—"the man with no eyes"—is the source of the sheriff who tracks the three convicts in O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). The two characters are fairly similar—associated with the devil, or at least with fate, with an impersonal and indifferent Authority that exacts punishment when transgression occurs.