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Cool Hand Luke's 'Failure To Communicate:' Paul Newman, A Rebel's Rebel

Entertainment | May 21, 2019

Left: Paul Newman as Luke, attempting to eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour in the film 'Cool Hand Luke', 1967. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images). Right: The Captain beating Luke in the 'failure to communicate' scene. Source: IMDB

"What we've got here is a failure to communicate," said to the titular Cool Hand Luke (Paul Newman) by the prison captain (Strother Martin), is one of the great lines of ‘60s movies. Luke, beaten and chained, lies in the Florida dirt under the hot sun. It's a scene of utter domination -- of the individual by society, perhaps, or of the young generation under the boot (literally) of The Man. At the same time, the line is soft -- Martin has just pummeled and humiliated Newman, is that a "failure to communicate" or an old-fashioned ass-whupping? The more you ponder the line, the more you might realize how completely out-of-place it is in this tough and straightforward film. So what does it really mean?

What we’ve got here is a look at the character of Luke, the symbolism in the line, as well as the story behind writing it. After reading this you might think about Cool Hand Luke in a completely new way. 

No Cause Other Than Himself

The foolishness that starts it all -- Luke laughs at the cops as they bust him for vandalizing public property in the opening scene of 'Cool Hand Luke.' Source: IMDB

Cool Hand Luke is an entertaining movie to watch, and it holds up remarkably well (not everything from the '60s does) -- but the issue of its meaning has long been the subject of conversation. American society was in turmoil by 1967, with Civil Rights struggles, the Vietnam War and cultural dissonance feeding what was known as the Generation Gap. Young people who considered themselves more thoughtful and sensitive (what they call "woke" these days) were increasingly resistant to the older generation, to authority figures, and the norms of the '40s and '50s.

Luke would seem like a hero to the budding counterculture -- except that he's not thoughtful or sensitive. He doesn't rebel because of any higher calling. He just hates authority, hates being told what to do, hates being told that he can't do something. He lands himself in prison by committing brainless vandalism, drunkenly and methodically cutting the heads off of parking meters. He refuses to admit defeat in a boxing match as he's being beaten senseless by the prison's alpha male, Dragline (George Kennedy). He bluffs spectacularly at cards because nobody expects it. He eats 50 eggs because nobody thinks he can. These are not acts of political protest, they're just a relentless chain of self-assertion. To borrow a phrase from another movie, Luke is the ultimate rebel without a cause.

He Fought The Law, And The Law Won

Left: Luke, triumphant, after having inspired his fellow inmates to complete a road-crew task in record time, just for the hell of it. Right: Luke about to get his butt kicked in a boxing match. Source: IMDB

In a general way, Luke was appealing as a rebel, like the other outsiders and antiheroes in 1967's biggest movies -- Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, the criminal couple in Bonnie & Clyde, Virgil Tibbs in In The Heat Of The Night, Lee Marvin and most of his Dirty Dozen. But those aren't Vietnam movies or hippie movies or protest movies, not like Easy Rider (1969) or the films that would come along in the '70s.

Luke just hates authority -- he himself might have had a hard time explaining it more than that. In the mid-'60s, when the counterculture movement was more of a personal statement than the political crusade it would become, Luke's rebellion touched a nerve probably as much as a Hollywood film could get away with.

The Scene In Question

Source: (Warner Bros.)

The famous scene from Cool Hand Luke is really one of cinema’s most fascinating character pieces. After a prison escape attempt gone awry, Luke is brought out to work with a chain gang, a smug look is settled on his face. His prison bosses put him in leg irons and the character Captain tells Luke that the chains are for his own good.

After Luke pops off to the Captain, he’s whipped until he falls over in the dirt and the Captain tells the men on the chain gang:

What we’ve got here is a 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 Line Is Attributed To Different Writers

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Cool Hand Luke began its life as a novel by former merchant seaman and criminal Donn Pearce. He used his experience working on a chain gang to tell the story of Luke, a former military man who refuses to be broken down by the system in a Florida jail. With the success of the book, Pearce was allowed to pen a draft of the script, but it was handed off to screenwriter Frank R. Pierson to give it a polish. One of the things Pierson added was the famous line in question, although it’s usually attributed to Pearce.

There was some worry on Pierson’s part that the line was too complicated for a good ol’ boy like the Captain, so a note was written into the stage directions that the Captain learned the phrase while attending classes at a university in order to advance through the criminal justice system. 

Strother Martin Has His Own Idea Of Where The Captain Came Up With The Phrase

Source: (Warner Bros.)

It’s important for actors to get into their characters' heads. Many of the best performances come from actors who are living and breathing their performances. They have to think about why their characters are saying things and build an interior life for them. Strother Martin, the steadily working western actor, had an idea about how a redneck character like the Captain would have heard the line.

Martin believes that the Captain would have heard some “pointy-headed intellectuals” saying the phrase, either around the prison or in a meeting of some sort. It's an interesting insight into the mind of the character.  

Describing the master-prisoner relationship as a "failure to communicate" is basically psychobabble in the context of the film -- it wasn't a failure to communicate, it was an attempted escape. Luke knows perfectly well what the Captain wants him to do, he just doesn't want to do it. The Captain's attempt to sound reasonable and appeal to Luke's humanity, while administering a good ol' prison beating, is tone-deaf in the extreme. It just makes Luke want to attempt to escape again (which he does).

The Scene Could Be A Commentary On The Vietnam War

Source: (Warner Bros.)

Released in 1967, Cool Hand Luke arrived right in the middle of the Vietnam War. Tensions were rising, and division over the war, often along generational lines, was becoming more and more apparent. Even though the film takes place in the early ‘50s, the anger of the time is felt in every frame of the movie, especially in Luke’s hatred of authority that comes through during this scene.

One additional interpretation of this scene is that it’s a commentary on the way that the military breaks down an individual’s spirit until they do as they’re told. Once they learn to like their restrictions in the same way the Captain wants Luke to love his chains, they’re more apt to commit brutal acts of violence without asking questions. 

The Line Is All About The Establishment Crushing Free Thinkers

Source: (Warner Bros.)

An interesting interpretation of the famous phrase is that the Captain is a stand-in for the establishment or "The Man," or in another broad sense, corporate America. Once again, when the Captain explains to Luke that learning to love the fact that he’s chained up, it’s a commentary on regular people learning to love the way they’re controlled by corporations.

The authoritative characters in Cool Hand Luke just want the prisoners to do as their told, but when anyone acts out, especially Luke, their punishments become increasingly violent or sadistic -- such as the solitary-confinement penalty known as "a night in the box." This is what the Captain is trying to get across when he explains that he and Luke are having a “failure to communicate.” 

Tags: 1967 | Cool Hand Luke | Famous Movie Scenes | Paul Newman

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.