Luke as a Christ Figure in "Cool Hand Luke"
March 4, 2019 at 11:34 pm #1342
The 1965 film Cool Hand Luke stars Paul Newman as Lucas Jackson: a laid back, free-spirited prisoner. He is first characterized as an aloof and wayward ‘cool guy,’ with his first introduction consisting of him drunkenly destroying parking meters. From this first impression, however, much of the plot, imagery and dialogue in the film guide him (perhaps unexpectedly) towards recognition as a Christ figure. For me, this first became apparent during the lingering shot of Luke laying on the table after the egg bet scene; the way he is positioned—from the outstretched arms to the crossed feet—reminded me immediately of the image of Jesus on the cross. This parallel is supported even more strongly later on when Luke is forced to repeatedly dig and fill in the ditch in the yard. After falling into what could be interpreted as a grave, Luke echoes Jesus’s own words from before his death when he screams “my God, my God.” Many of the instances of struggle and doubt that Luke experiences with regard to religion throughout the film mirror those of Jesus in the days leading up to his death. In a more abstract way, the pattern of death and resurrection may be extrapolated to Luke’s situation; he ‘dies’ when he is broken by the men in charge of the prison, and he is ‘resurrected’ when he finds the will to try to escape again. Much of the connection between Luke and Jesus, however, can be explained further in Luke’s interactions with the people who follow him.
Soon after arriving at the prison, Luke amasses support from his fellow prisoners and sparks a new sense of life in them. He befriends them and they eventually look up to him, and the egg bet scene can even be considered a miraculous display on Luke’s part. However, as time goes on and Luke becomes worn down by the abuse of the bosses, the prisoners are less inclined to help him or interact with him, both out of fear and shame. Eventually, this even turns to resentment, as demonstrated when one man flicks his cigarette at Luke on the road. This directly mirrors the pattern that Jesus’s disciples (specifically Paul) displayed: Jesus was betrayed, denied, and essentially abandoned. It isn’t until his resurrection that his disciples regain faith, just as it isn’t until Luke steals the car in an attempt to escape that the prisoners regain their spark and faith in him. Lastly, both of their departures leave their followers changed. In Jesus’s case, with his ascension he left his followers to carry on his legacy with the creation of the Church. For Luke, this is less obviously structured, but the final scene of his friends remembering him and sharing his story parallels the idea of the carrying on of legacy.
–Jenna CoburnMarch 11, 2019 at 11:35 am #1346
I myself am not very educated in the topics of “Jesus” and “The Bible” but I find the parallels you make between Luke and Jesus to be quite striking and one that I myself picked up on throughout the film. Luke through being put into the role of “the savior” rejects it when he is brought back after attempting to escape for either the first or second time (I am not sure) but he tells all the men that the picture he gave to them of him was fake and that they should worry about themselves. He however embraced the role of Christ in the end when he decides his own fate by choosing death over submitting himself to the prison system. Luke could have easily gone quietly with the prison guards but he instead chose the way in which he could attain true freedom through death. You could even tell he was happy with his decision and that he was very much aware of it when he gave that iconic smile to Dragline as he is driven away. I also find it significant that the image of Luke grinning with the two women was taped back together because that is how the other prisoners would like to remember him. To put him on this sort of pedestal and to make their time in prison a little easier knowing that Luke was possibly living a life of leisure and that he was able to “escape”.March 11, 2019 at 12:48 pm #1348
I really like your interpretation, Jenna. When I was watching the film, these connections didn’t immediately stand out to me, but now that you’ve pointed them out it feels like sort of an “ah-ha!” moment. It really does feel like Luke is a Christ figure for the other inmates. I read someone else’s interpretation online and they pointed out that Luke’s prison number is 37, and Luke 1:37 states that, “For with God, nothing shall be impossible.” That would be one hell of a coincidence if the writers put that in unintentionally. Luke is like a Christ figure for his fellow inmates, as they look up to his rebellious attitude and actions and feel less hopeless or more in control. Through Luke’s inspiring actions, nothing is impossible. Luke escapes not once, but multiple times. Luke gains the respect of not only his fellow prisoners, but the guards and prison staff too. The movie ends with his photo taped back together in roughly a cross shape, under which we see the inmates working on a cross roads. All in all, I really like this interpretation and the symbolism that goes along with it. It felt very natural, Luke falls into the Christ figure very naturally, rather than having these symbols thrust onto him by viewers after the fact. Thanks for the cool topic, Jenna!March 11, 2019 at 1:36 pm #1350
Raina Schoen ThomasParticipant
I really appreciate the subtlety of the religious symbolism. Apart from the post-egg-eating scene when Luke is casually spread out in the shape of the cross, I found that I had to dig a little deeper to discover the underlying symbolism of the film. It was smart of the filmmakers to insert the symbol of the cross as a sort of Easter egg for viewers to dig deeper, if they care to. To add to our list of religious symbolism, I would also say the scene when Luke is given all of that rice and the other inmates take from his plate parallels Jesus and his apostles during the last supper and communion. This film was quite enjoyable on all layers. It told a wonderful personal narrative with engaging and well-developed characters, but also had many hidden symbolic/allegorical elements.
Shout out to George Kennedy, who played Dragline, I thought his performance was amazing and his character made my heart feel warm.March 11, 2019 at 1:41 pm #1351
Jenna, I too thoroughly enjoyed reading your review and saw instances of Luke as a Christ-like figure myself throughout the film as well. To continue with your thought about legacy and how Luke and Jesus both leave their followers “changed” as a result of their experiences together, my reflections on Cool Hand Luke and Luke’s role within it have largely centered around Luke as a messianic figure for his fellow prisoners. As you and previous respondents have mentioned, Luke, like Christ, suffers throughout his hero’s journey because he refuses to compromise his beliefs and his attitudes (more so than for his actions, which are largely harmless) threaten existing power structures and the status quo. Luke is a free thinking man confined in a system whose very existence is predicated on complete, dogmatic adherence to rules, forceful authority, and hierarchy. The very notion that he can entertain free thoughts is a threat to that system’s integrity and long term security. With the film being released in 1967, there is plenty of socio-historical context which can inform why such a character would be heroic to audiences of the time (and, unsurprisingly today).
To both his fellow prisoners and the audience, Luke is a messianic figure through the redemptive power of his suffering. His fellow prisoners use Luke’s experiences and actions as catharsis, a story they can tell themselves and each other to entertain hope about their current predicament and that there is even the possibility of standing up to and defeating that unshakable, world-binding authority. As John Lennon sings in 1973’s “God” – “God is a concept by which we measure our pain”. Because Luke suffers, his fellow prisoners are able to feel hope, and we, the audience, walk away with a determined resolve to oppose tyranny and stand up for humanity. In Luke’s death, he achieves a kind of symbolic immortality.
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