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

By | May 18, 2019

test article image
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

test article image
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.