Cool Hand Luke is a 1967 American prison drama film directed by Stuart Rosenberg, starring Paul Newman and featuring George Kennedy in an Oscar-winning performance. Newman stars in the title role as Luke, a prisoner in a Florida prison camp who refuses to submit to the system.
The film, set in the early 1950s, is based on Donn Pearce’s 1965 novel of the same name. Pearce sold the story to Warner Bros., who then hired him to write the script. Due to Pearce’s lack of film experience, the studio added Frank Pierson to rework the screenplay. Newman’s biographer Marie Edelman Borden states that the “tough, honest” script drew together threads from earlier movies, especially Hombre, Newman’s earlier film of 1967. The film has been cited by Roger Ebert as an anti-establishment film which was shot during the time of the Vietnam War, in which Newman’s character endures “physical punishment, psychological cruelty, hopelessness and equal parts of sadism and masochism.” His influence on his prison mates and the torture that he endures is compared to that of Jesus, and Christian symbolism is used throughout the film, culminating in a photograph superimposed over crossroads at the end of the film in comparison to the crucifixion. Filming took place within California’s San Joaquin River Delta region, and the set, imitating a prison farm in the Deep South, was built in nearby Stockton, California. The filmmakers sent a crew to Tavares Road Prison in Tavares, Florida, to take photographs and measurements.
Upon its release, Cool Hand Luke received favorable reviews and became a box-office success. The film cemented Newman’s status as one of the era’s top box-office actors, while the film was described as the “touchstone of an era.” Newman was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor, George Kennedy won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, Pearce and Pierson were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and the score by Lalo Schifrin was also nominated for the Best Original Score. In 2005, the United States Library of Congress selected it for the National Film Registry, considering it to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It has a 100% rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. The quotation used by the prison warden (Strother Martin) in the film, which begins with “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” was listed at No. 11 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most memorable movie lines.