It’s hard to believe the novel Cool Hand Luke is fifty years old and that the Paul Newman film is forty eight.
We liked the book and the novel in the 1960s because we liked poking at the system. The chain gang where Luke serves his time is a bad system, personified, perhaps by the joint’s Captain played by Strother Martin. When something didn’t work out right, the Captain famously said, ‘What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”
We were all saying that in the 1960s every time the latest lie from “the establishment” came down the road to bite us.
“Luke: I wish you’d stop being so good to me, Cap’n.
“Captain: Don’t you ever talk that way to me. (pause, then hitting him) NEVER! NEVER! (Luke rolls down hill; to other prisoners) 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.”
The book and movie seemed real because the author, Donn Pearce (Nobody Comes Back, 2005) served time after being convicted as a safe cracker.
Kirkus Reviews’ Gregory McNamee looked back at Cool Hand Luke at 50. I wish I’d written the first paragraph of the essay:
“Donn Pearce’s Cool Hand Luke is a hot book. A hot, sweaty book. A hot, sweaty, stinking book. When you read it, having worked vicariously on a chain gang in a Florida July, you’ll want to take four or five showers—and you’ll give up any thought of a life of crime, especially one south of the Pee Dee and east of the Atchafalaya.”
I appreciated the story, in part, because I grew up in Florida and saw a lot of chain gangs working the roads. The Kirkus piece is called an interview, though that’s questionable since it doesn’t have any Q&A in it. I wish McNamee had contacted the 86-year-old author and ask him how the story speaks to us in 2015.
Goodness knows, the story should speak to us because, what with the near-weekly revelations of lies–and/or people who “misspoke”–we have plenty of reasons not to trust “the establishment” even if we don’t call it that any more.
In June, the Florida Department of Corrections said that it’s looking at a new model. It’s called “transformative rehabilitation.” Big words. Are they real, or another failure to communicate? Rather than simply managing the inmates’ time in jail, these words mean the inmates will be prepared to re-enter society.
We can hope without holding our breath. Our country is addicted to its prisons with more people in jail than any other modern, advanced nation. There are a lot of Lukes out there and that seems ensure the story will probably keep speaking to us.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the novella “Conjure Woman’s Cat” set in the Jim Crow era of the Florida Panhandle.