Release Date(s)1967 (April 4, 2023)
Studio(s)Jalem Productions/Warner Bros.-Seven Arts (Warner Home Video)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: C+
Stuart Rosenberg’s 1967 classic Cool Hand Luke is an adaptation of the 1965 debut novel by ex-con Donn Pearce, who based the book partially on his own experiences while being imprisoned for two years on a chain gang in Florida. Pearce worked on the initial drafts of the screenplay, although the final draft was written by Frank Pierson, who made some key changes over Pearce’s objections (including the film’s most famous line of dialogue, which Pearce hated). While some of the specific details in the story may seem a bit dated now, the basic narrative remains as timeless as ever:
Lukas “Luke” Jackson (Paul Newman) has been sentenced to serve two years on a Florida chain gang after getting drunk one night and vandalizing city parking meters. He just wants to do his time quietly, but between the autocratic rules of the warden (Strother Martin), and the equally capricious rules of the prisoners led by the hulking Dragline (George Kennedy), Luke finds himself in conflict wherever he turns. His refusal to submit to anyone’s authority eventually gains him the grudging respect of his fellow convicts, but it also draws the inevitable wrath of the warden and his guards. When the irresistible force of Luke’s personality meets the immovable object of his prison chains, something will eventually have to give. Cool Hand Luke’s extraordinary supporting cast includes Jo Van Fleet, Joy Harmon, Morgan Woodward, Robert Donner, Dennis Hopper, Harry Dean Stanton, Anthony Zerbe, Ralph Waite, Wayne Rogers, and Clifton James, as well as an uncredited Joe Don Baker, Rance Howard, and James Gammon. (Pearce also has a small role as one of the cons.)
Pearce himself may have been incarcerated for a serious crime like burglary, but he decided to keep Luke sympathetic by reducing the character’s offenses against the system to simple destruction of property—and crucially, it’s property that many people would dearly love to see destroyed. Pierson further increased audience sympathy by drastically simplifying Luke’s encounter with the police. In the book, he ends up driving off with the cops in armed pursuit, eventually crashing his truck through the plate glass window of a nearby restaurant. In the film, he goes much more peacefully, accompanied by a freeze-frame on Paul Newman’s winning smile. For the story to work as mainstream cinematic entertainment, audiences needed to be able to empathize with Luke no matter what he does.
It’s also significant that Luke was a decorated war hero, but one whose inability to conform meant that he was reduced in rank before being discharged from the service. He may have been busted back to private, but the Army still couldn’t break his spirit. Just like the military, the prison system has been designed to dismantle individuality while forcing group conformity, and that’s something against which Luke will always rebel. So, his experiences on a strictly-regimented chain gang were predestined to result in him becoming something of a Messianic figure to his fellow inmates. Unsurprisingly, a great quantity of ink has been spilled over the years regarding the apparent Christological typology in Cool Hand Luke, but that’s an overly reductive way of analyzing a character who stubbornly refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations.
There’s no question that Rosenberg did include some overtly symbolic Christian imagery in the film, but the reality is that Lukas Jackson is anything but a type of Christ. He’s no innocent lamb being sent to the slaughter, and he isn’t sacrificed to save his particular people from the errors of their ways. He’s certainly not a servant leader, and he doesn’t provide any kind of moral teachings, either. Rosenberg did include the famous shot of Luke spread out in a crucifixion posture after the egg-eating bet, but contextually speaking, it doesn’t have any real bearing on that moment in the narrative. It’s more of a cheekily sacrilegious non sequitur than having anything in particular to do with Luke’s character, or with any of his activities up to that point in the film.
No, the revolutionary spirit that Cool Hand Luke taps into is one that predates Jesus, and it’s as old as mankind itself. Not necessarily a political or religious revolution, but rather a sociological and cultural one. Luke may not represent the spirit of Christ, but he does represent the spirit of nonconformity with the arbitrary strictures that all societies have imposed upon their citizens. To put it bluntly, Luke doesn’t like playing by anyone else’s rules, and he doesn’t really care what anyone else thinks about that fact, either. In Camille Paglia’s book Sexual Personae, she wrote that “We are hierarchical animals. Sweep one hierarchy away, and another will take its place.” If that’s true, then there’s always going to be a counterculture in opposition to whatever the dominant hierarchy may be in any given society in any era, and that’s exactly what Luke represents. He may not be a type of Christ, but he’s definitely the prototypical rebel with a cause: namely, nonconformity.
That’s why it’s no accident that Cool Hand Luke became a sizable hit in late 1967. Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen had been an even bigger hit a few months earlier, and in their own individual ways, both films celebrated the kind of anti-authoritarian and nonconformist spirit that would have been appreciated by audiences who were beginning to question their own sociopolitical hierarchies during that era. That’s also why the relatively trivial nature of Luke’s offenses against the dominant social order is so crucial to the appeal of the film. Luke is no saint, but there’s an argument to be made that his punishment doesn’t necessarily fit the crime that he committed. There aren’t any ironies here like the ones in Aldrich’s film, where the ostensible “heroes” were actually violent rapists and murderers. No, Luke’s real original sin is little more than a having a lack of respect for authority, so it’s not surprising that The Man came down on him as hard as it did.
Cool Hand Luke also exchanged the military-industrial complex of The Dirty Dozen for the American prison-industrial complex instead, and that’s only become even more relevant as time has gone by. The chain gang system may have faded away, but overall incarceration rates are higher than ever. While many prisoners undoubtedly have earned their own fates, there’s no denying that plenty of sentences are every bit as disproportionate as the one that Luke received—and also, that those who refuse to conform to society’s expectations tend to be treated the most harshly. There’s nothing particularly subtle about any of these themes in Cool Hand Luke, but that’s one reason why its understandable appeal to audiences of the Sixties has translated so easily to the generations that have followed. What we have here is no failure to communicate, and that’s why Rosenberg’s film remains as vital today as it was when it was released more than a half century ago. Times (and hierarchies) may change, but the Lukas Jacksons of the world will never go out of style.
Cinematographer Conrad Hall shot Cool Hand Luke on 35 mm film using Panavision cameras with anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. While Warner Bros. did perform 4K restorations of Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde, Blade Runner, and the first two Dirty Harry films back in 2007-2008, this version utilizes a new 16-bit 4K scan of the original camera negative. Scanning, restoration work, and grading was performed at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging, including the new High Dynamic Range grade (only HDR10 is included on the disc). Needless to say, it’s the usual impeccable work from MPI.
The optically printed opening titles likely came from dupe elements, as they’re a bit softer than everything that follows. On the other hand, the rest of the optical transitions in the film appear to have been regenerated digitally using the original negative elements—they hardly display any perceptible image degradation at all. The level of fine detail that’s visible here puts all previous home video versions of Cool Hand Luke to shame, although the nature of the anamorphic lenses that Hall used means that it can never quite be the last word on the subject. Still, there are some pretty impressive textures on display, especially during the closeups of the craggy faces of actors like Morgan Woodward and Harry Dean Stanton. The colors are well-saturated, and while the flesh tones are sometimes quite bronzed, that seems in line with Hall’s intent. The contrast is strong, with genuinely deep black levels, and better resolved details within the shadows than ever before. The only possible criticism is that the average bitrate runs a little low, and while the compression is generally quite good, it’s too bad that a classic like this hasn’t been given as much breathing room as possible. Still, considering how impressive that everything looks overall, that’s a minor complaint. It’s a great 4K presentation.
Interestingly enough, Hall wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for his work on Cool Hand Luke in 1967, as he essentially canceled himself out with his unforgettably striking black-and-white cinematography for the Richard Brooks adaptation of In Cold Blood that same year. He would end up taking home the statuette for the latter film at the 1968 Academy Awards, so it all worked out for him in the end. (George Kennedy also took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.)
Primary audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s a definite step up compared to the lossy Dolby Digital track on the original 2008 Blu-ray, especially since additional restoration work has been performed on it. Everything is clean and clear, with little in the way of distortion, noise, or other artifacts to mar the experience. Lalo Schifrin’s iconic score benefits the most from the upgrade to lossless, and it sounds as good as it can in this theatrical mono mix (although including an isolated music track on the disc featuring the original stereo recordings would have been a nice touch). Additional audio options are offered in Dolby Digital 1.0: French, German, Italian, Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Latin America), and Czech. Subtitle options include English SDH, German SDH, Spanish (Spain), Spanish (Latin America), Danish, Norwegian, French, Italian SDH, Dutch, Czech, Finnish, and Swedish.
The Warner Bros. 4K Ultra UHD release of Cool Hand Luke is a two-disc set that includes a Blu-ray with a 1080p copy of the film, as well as a slipcover that duplicates the artwork from the insert, but adds the WB 100th logo at the top left corner. There’s also a Digital Code tucked inside. Note that the Blu-ray is a repressing of the original 2008 release, not a remastered copy. That means that the Blu-ray audio options that are listed on the packaging are wrong; it doesn’t offer English DTS-HD Master Audio, just the old lossy Dolby Digital 1.0 track. The packaging also erroneously states that the only special feature on the UHD is the commentary track, when the exact same extras are actually included on both discs:
- Audio Commentary by Eric Lax
- A Natural-Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke (Upscaled SD – 28:47)
- Trailer (Upscaled SD – 2:48)
Eric Lax is the author of the biography Paul Newman: A Celebration, and his commentary is as much of an appreciation of the actor as it is an analysis of the film. He does provide some details about the production, as well as biographical information about the rest of the cast & crew, but it’s really a naked hagiography for Newman. Still, there is some useful material here, but be forewarned that Lax also spends a significant amount of time narrating what’s happening onscreen (and repeating the dialogue, too). It can take a little patience to wade through everything to uncover the worthwhile nuggets.
A Natural-Born World-Shaker: Making Cool Hand Luke is a short documentary by Gary Leva that provides a fairly comprehensive look at the production of the film, featuring interviews with Rosenberg, Frank Pierson, Donn Pierce, Lalo Schifrin, George Kennedy, Ralph Waite, Anthony Zerbe, Clifton James, and more. It covers the development of the script; the challenges in getting the film greenlit; Newman’s approach to acting; putting together the rest of the cast; and various stories about the production, including a lengthy examination of Joy Harmon’s infamous car wash scene. While it’s a bit too brief, it’s still a fine introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the background of Cool Hand Luke. It also contains some priceless interviews with members of the cast & crew who are no longer with us.
That’s a slim collection of extras for a film as iconic as Cool Hand Luke, but classics like these do speak for themselves, and the quality of this new transfer more than compensates for the shallowness of the old extras. It’s a gorgeous disc by any measurement, and another fantastic UHD release from WB—they definitely know how to communicate the goods in 4K.
- Stephen Bjork