In Cool Hand Luke, the movie begins with the word, VIOLATION, across the screen. The word is from a parking meter and sets the tone for the entire movie. Luke Jackson, the title character, is arrested for cutting off the heads of the town’s parking meters while drunk, or in legal terms, for destroying municipal property while under the influence of alcohol. When asked why he cut the heads off the parking meters, Luke answers, “You could say I was settling an old score.”
While it leaves the viewers believing that he probably received a parking ticket at some time in the past, no clues are given to what the old score may have been. He is sentenced to two years in a road prison, in a chain gang. His punishment did not fit the crime, and today, such an act would probably result in time spent in community service rather than a hard labor prison gang.
To further accentuate that his sentence is worse than his crime, Luke Jackson dies at the end of his story. Luke is a decorated veteran, yet left the military service just as he went in, as a Private. This indicates that he had authority problems while there.
He received the Silver Star, Bronze Star, and a couple of Purple Hearts and that indicates that he is brave and probably humanitarian, because the Silver Star is usually given in recognition of a life-saving deed of valor.
That he was never promoted, or else promoted and consequently demoted, (the story does not elaborate on the details) indicates that his superiors, those who had the authority to promote him, did not react well to his achievements. For Luke, death represents the ultimate freedom.
There is no doubt that he believes in God, in that he talks to God several times throughout the movie, yet his conversations are always more like arguments than prayers. In one of the final scenes, the empty shell of a church represents Luke’s relationship with God, and even the emptiness in himself. Luke feels that God has never been there for him. He tells God just before the end of the story that God hasn’t ever dealt him a good hand. Those military authorities considered him a hero, decorating him with medals, doesn’t make him a hero in his own eyes.
Luke is a tortured soul, in that he tells God that he doesn’t deserve any good thing because he killed people in the war. Still, Luke is a free spirit, true to himself, with no regard for the rules and regulations of other human beings. The crime he is arrested for is not one of violence toward any person, it is simply a flaunting of his disdain for authority, which irritates persons in authority more than anything. Luke’s death made him a legend in his community of prisoners at the chain gang.
Dragline and Luke escaped together, yet Dragline couldn’t live in prison without Luke, nor could he live as a free man on his own. In Drag’s mind, Luke and he are one person. When caught by the officials, he leads them to Luke, and claims, “We got caught old buddy,” not ‘I got caught please come back with me so that I won’t be lonely.’ Luke is the boat pulling the dragline, and Dragline is a representative of the whole community, the other draglines. Dragline made Luke who he is in the community and Luke gives Dragline and the others hope and life in return.
Dragline made Luke a leader in the community when he fought Luke after Luke told him to shut up about Lucille. While Luke is physically whipped, his spirit is never defeated, and he gains the respect of Dragline and the community with his determination.
Luke further made a believer out of his fellow prisoners, when he said he could eat 50 eggs. Bets are on and despite personal discomfort and pain, Luke keeps his word and wins the bet. At the end of this scene, the fellow prisoners leave a bloated Luke on a table, in the position of Christ on the cross, yet Luke has a slight smile on his face because he won.
His community of worshippers betrays him, too, when he is beaten and thrown into the box when he escapes the second time. When Luke returns to the community, the other prisoners turn their backs to him, and Luke tells them that he is tired of them eating off of him. Luke is the embodiment of their own rebellious desires which they are too weak to act upon themselves. They don’t want him to be the weaker side of themselves, but always the rebel. After Luke dies, Dragline continues to live off of Luke, in keeping his legend alive, telling the other prisoners how he was smiling as the truck drove down the road.
Luke’s death is unnecessary, except as a fulfillment of the words of authority. He is told after his second escape, “If you run again, we’ll kill you.” Luke is shot as he is mocking the captain, repeating the captain’s expression, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” His death makes him a legend in the community, but it does not reinforce hope. Instead, it leaves a defeatist attitude in the community if Cool Hand Luke couldn’t beat the system, no one could. If Luke had survived, he would have been defeated, as he very much was defeated by the beatings after his second escape.
He no longer would have been the community hero, because as a beaten man, he’d have been like everyone else. While his death represented his personal freedom, it served as good to none, except for a good discussion here and thereby the fellow prisoners.
To that extent, the hero lived on, but his death did not encourage anyone else to follow in his shoes, nor did it make heroes of the authorities. Ultimately, his death reinforces the idea that you can’t beat the system and that is a VIOLATION of the human spirit