If you were to compose a short list of movies that epitomize the style of the 1960s and 70s, you’d have to include “Cool Hand Luke.” From the muted colors of its cinematography to its music to its theme of rebellion against authority, this film checks all the boxes. The previous DVD release was a bare-bones affair, so it’s nice to see Warner Bros. finally give it some love. Unfortunately, I was left a little wanting by the bonus features.
You’ve seen this film before, so I’ll skip the plot regurgitation. If you haven’t seen it, what are you waiting for? Rebellion against authority is an ancient theme, and “Cool Hand Luke” presents plenty of Christ imagery in reference to the most well-known rabble rouser in history. Luke teaches his fellow prisoners how to question a dictatorial authority that places them in a box for any random offense, and eventually he wins the respect of many disciples, including one who goes from leader to follower.
But is Luke going to lead them to salvation, or is he simply a charlatan who knows how to play people? The film is not clear on this point, leaving the answer to us. Personally, I like movies that paint in shades of gray and don’t spell out everything we are supposed to think, instead giving us ideas we can chew on long after the credits have rolled, and “Cool Hand Luke” delivers in that department. We’re free to map our own approach to life on the characters’ actions, approving or disapproving where necessary and ultimately deciding whether Luke’s story is heroic or a cautionary tale.
Eric Lax, who wrote a 1996 biography on Newman, delves into the film’s themes, including its Christ imagery, during his commentary. It’s a worthwhile track for Luke fans, although sometimes he commits the cardinal sin of commentaries: telling us what we’re watching without giving us any insight into it.
Lax also appears in this disc’s other supplement, a nearly 30-minute documentary called “A Natural Born World Shaker: Making ‘Cool Hand Luke.'” Starring all the major players from the movie, except Paul Newman, it touches all the main points, including the process of adapting Donn Pearce’s novel, although I wish Warner had included a second disc and devoted more time to it. For example, Pearce’s personal experiences, which formed the foundation of his book, sound interesting, but we don’t learn much about them. I imagine there was probably a lot of material left on a virtual cutting room floor, which is a shame, especially considering the lavish treatment that Warner has given other classics.
What we’ve got here is … failure to give a classic film its due respect.