Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Screenplay by: Donn Pearce (from his novel) and Frank R. Pierson

Paul Newman was nominated for a Best Actor Academy Award and George Kennedy won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in this acclaimed prison drama following Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), who is sentenced to a stretch on a southern chain gang after he’s arrested for drunkenly decapitating parking meters.

In this examination of the opening pages of this 1967 classic, screenwriters Pearce and Pierson do a masterful job delivering the 5 major rules within the first 10 script pages. In fact, they do it in five.



How you introduce a character is massively important, yet the manner in which you can varies greatly. Do you introduce him/her in a burst of action? Or do you make it subtle? Does his entrance set the plot into motion or does he/she need time to be introduced before they go on their emotional journey? Luke’s introduction of what will become a legendary (to his friends) hero appears to be small and seemingly inconsequential, but tells us almost everything:




Its irritating head opens a glaring red eye: the red flag pops across the entire screen:



CLOSEUP of a pipe cutter attached to the meter neck, metal slivers curling out. From o.s. we HEAR – LUCAS JACKSON cheerfully humming and mumbling Auld Lang Syne and then:

LUKE: Okay, Mister General, you son of a bitch. Sir. Think you can put things right with a piece of tin with a ribbon hangin’ on it? Gonna put you right.


as the meter head falls out of FRAME.


as it falls to the ground amidst a forest of meter stands and Luke's hand comes into the FRAME to pick it up and we see him in CLOSEUP for the first time. He is cheerful, drunk, wearing a faded GI Field jacket. A bottle opener hangs on a silver chain around his neck. He addresses the next meter.

LUKE: All Right. Helen, honey. I lost my head over you. Now its your turn.

Suddenly the beam of headlights crashes in, FLARING the SCREEN.


sliding up to us, headlights glaring, red toplight revolving menacingly. TWO OFFICERS, black shapes, get out and start warily toward Luke.


illuminated by the headlights. He grins as the Officers approach, lifts a bottle of beer, opens it and drinks, smiling. On his smile, FREEZE FRAME. ON THE FRAME SUPER-IMPOSE MAIN TITLE and as it FADES

Although the idea of cutting off parking meters could be simply thrown away as the ideal crime of someone who is intoxicated, it is actually the best way the film could have possibly summed up a character in less than one page. Building up resentment for figures who have wronged him in the past, he envisions the parking meter as his foe and cuts them down in a display that is equal parts utterly childish and downright bitter. Luke cannot solve the problems that are plaguing him, so he ignores them and engages in self-destructive acts for his own amusement. The parking meter also serves as an excellent metaphor: we put money into them (begrudgingly) because we obey the rules of our society, and Luke’s dismantling of them shows him to be defiant of society and what they expect him to be. Naturally, the hatred of being charged to park your car somewhere immediately paints Luke in the sympathetic light of an anti-hero. He is a criminal, but a lovable one.

We later discover that one of the people who have wronged him include a military general, who has given Luke a medal for an unexplained reason, suggesting a traumatic or conflicted time spent in the military and which is confirmed by Luke’s GI jacket in the opening parking meter scene. A bottle opener round his neck also suggests a guy who may love drink a little too much.



So where is the worst possible place a guy like this could end up? A good film always has that element of irony, where somehow the worst possible combination of events or people or circumstances collides together. Luke is about to step into the worst possible place at the worst possible time, and it is currently standing in the scorching heat:



and we see the work gang in uniforms (14 men) flailing away with yoyos, short-handled scythes in the hot sun, guarded by three men. Three of the workers wear chains (Gambler, Dynamite, Sailor). The scene is bleached and hot; the men sweating and dirty in prison shirts and pants. The light shifts during the following:



He is a trustee. He walks up INTO CAMERA and sets up sign: SLOW DOWN -- MEN AT WORK


He is a giant, covered with sweat and dust. He starts to pull off his shirt.

DRAGLINE:  Takin' it off here, Boss!

BOSS KEAN:  Yeah, take it off, Dragline!


pulling out watch, looking at the sun.


flailing away, most of them naked to the waist.


He is sweating streams.

KOKO:  Wipin' it off here, Boss!

BOSS SHORTY:  Okay, wipe it off there, Koko.

Koko takes out a limp handkerchief and mops his face.


his yoyo flashing like a sword. He pauses, panting.

GAMBLER:  Drinkin' it up here, Boss!


BOSS KEAN:  Awright, drink it up, Gambler. Water 'em, Rabbit.

While the majority of the film will take place in the confines of the prison, the ethos of that world is introduced on the small stretch of highway where a chain gang does their work. The only movement that the gang can do without fear of reprisal is send their yoyo crashing into the ground, even the simple act of wiping your face requires permission from the guard on duty. This takes the idea of prison, the taking away of personal freedoms, and takes it to the absolute extreme: these prisoners no longer have any control over their own bodies. The world of the story is presented simple and effectively: absolute submission. Absolute social order.




The back of the truck is opened by the guard and through that rectangle of bright sunlight, the silhouettes of the Newmeat descend, Luke last.


The Scene: in a hollow is a long barracks, white-washed, faded gray, one story high. At right is a mess hall and laundry. A chain-link fence surrounds the whole compound. The corners of the fence are telephone poles with floodlights the tops. These burn all night. Back of the mess hall, again outside the fence, are several kennel runs in which bloodhounds are now ROARING. A wooden tower with a simple board roof stands at two corners of the compound where the guards sit when the prisoners are not locked in the barracks. A picnic table sits in a grassy area just outside and at one side of the gate is a picket fence enclosing a scrubby lawn.

BOSS PAUL: Four. Right

He hands the papers to the CAPTAIN, a small man with a kindly face but a firm, set mouth who always carries a golf club. In b.g. the bloodhounds are YOWLING:

Arriving on a prison site and seeing that the captain of the prison is wielding a golf club must certainly give you the willies. His entrance is imposing and interesting contradiction between a firm mouth suggesting coldness and a kindly face suggesting benevolence. His status as the top of the hierarchy makes him the antagonist, his rules will be broken by Luke, and there will be consequences. His title of captain as well as the unusual description of the prison forms a different image from what we would expect. The word “barracks” immediately conjures up images of soldiers and the military, which we discovered on page one may invoke some unhappy memories for Luke.



Luke’s arrival at the prison on page 5 sets the films genre in stone: Cool Hand Luke is a prison movie, a genre recently replicated by the recent and unusual reboot of Planet of the Apes. It is also home to some outright classics containing not only Cool Hand Luke, but The Shawshank Redemption, or a different kind of prison in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There are three things that can be gleaned from the first few pages of Cool Hand Luke that are common from the genre. First, we have a group of men who have been institutionalized. In this screenplay it’s the chain gang, sharing similarities with the Shawshank’s prisoners and the patients of the mental health facility of Cuckoo’s Nest. Secondly, there is the man that arrives into the prison with the sole intent of shaking things up. Luke’s arrival may only step off the bus, but like Andy Dufresne and R.P. McMurphy, he is going to cause absolute mayhem. Finally, there is the antagonist, the point of social order who is going to stop the man in his tracks. The captain is not as crooked as Warden Norton, but he shares some similarities with the hard-edged Nurse Ratched.



On a physical level we have Man vs. Man or rather, Man vs. Men as Luke will engage with a battle of wits against the prison and it’s guards, who slowly and surely attempt to break Luke’s will. On a more metaphorical level, Luke is railing against society (Man vs. Society). The act of violence against the innocent parking meters is the start, representing our need to pay our dues to the “system”. Luke sees himself as being as odds with our view of the world, and no longer sees himself fitting in. His faded GI jacket and his animosity towards it serve as subtle clues, perhaps having seen a side of the world he hasn’t liked. This becomes more potent when we learn later on, that Luke has no belief in God. But in the end, Cool Hand Luke is in many ways a story of Man vs. Himself. Luke is just not the kind of guy who can be locked up in a cage, and his inability to adapt is ultimately the fuel toward his own demise.


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