A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Cool Hand Luke is a classic Paul Newman movie about the conflict between rebellion and authority/conformity. It's not exactly a polished masterpiece, but it is highly entertaining and an audience favorite, even decades later. Teens may find Newman's cheerfully rebellious Luke worth emulating, although that may not exactly be a wise decision, given the price he pays. The movie contains some fighting and some blood, as well as guards beating and intimidating prisoners. There are guns and shooting, but mostly used for birds, snakes, etc. A character's mother is said to have died. Language is mild by today's standards, but still contains uses of "bitch," "damn," "hell," and "ass." There's a scene of the men ogling and objectifying a woman in a skimpy dress, and some sex-related dialogue, as well as a naked male bottom. Social smoking and drinking is shown, and the main character is slurring drunk in the prologue.
What's the story?
In COOL HAND LUKE, Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) drunkenly cuts the heads off of a row of parking meters. He is arrested and sent to a Florida chain gang prison, run by a nasty captain (Strother Martin). He immediately clashes with the leader of the prisoners, Dragline (George Kennedy), and they set up a boxing match. Dragline pummels Luke, but Luke refuses to go down, thereby earning the respect of the prisoners. Luke's humor and carefree attitude also inspire the prisoners to finish a weary, exhausting road-paving job a few hours early, and an egg-eating bet entertains everyone. But when he learns of the death of his mother (Jo Van Fleet), he tries to escape and spends some time in "the box." The more he tries to break out, the worse his lot becomes, until he is seemingly broken and kowtowing to the bosses. But Luke may not be ready to give in quite yet.
Is it any good?
Released in the anti-establishment days of 1967, this popular and critical success is not an entirely polished masterpiece, but certainly still inspires and works even decades later. The uninspired, draggy direction by Stuart Rosenberg (The Amityville Horror) is arguably the movie's biggest flaw, dragging the movie out a bit too long and hammering points a bit too hard. But other elements click into place beautifully, including the sharp screenplay by Frank R. Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon) and novelist Donn Pearce. Newman is at his best, playing a likable outcast, cheerfully bucking authority; he earned one of nine acting Oscar nominations for his work.
The rest of the cast is equally memorable, especially Kennedy, who won a Supporting Actor Oscar as the bull-sized prisoner who isn't so tough as he looks, and Martin, whose "what we got here is failure to communicate" speech is still quotable. Jo Van Fleet is amazing in her one scene as Luke's mother (she also played James Dean's mother in East of Eden). The movie also hosted early parts for such actors as Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, and Joe Don Baker. Conrad L. Hall's widescreen cinematography beautifully captures the shimmering heat, and aids in the appealingly disconnected way the story is told. Ultimately, Cool Hand Luke is all about rebellion and conformity, with the end message being that a middle ground is most realistic.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about Cool Hand Luke's use of violence. How strong is it for its time? Does it seem gratuitous? Is it shocking or thrilling?
How does the movie view sex and women? Are women respected or objectified? How?
How does the movie view rebellion and authority? How are they different? Is one better or more powerful than the other?
Why is Luke such an appealing character?
What about the movie has made it hold up for so many years?
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