“What we’ve got here is… failure to communicate.”
The immortal line from director Stuart Rosenberg’s beautifully shot character drama “Cool Hand Luke” can in a way sum up the conflict of the film. The title character, Luke (Paul Newman), is arrested one night for being drunk and screwing the tops off of parking meters. Even the captain (Strother Martin) of the prison he is sent to is confused by this seemingly pointless act. But that’s sort of the whole point with Luke: he doesn’t conform. He often talks about how he hates rules and regulations. Even in prison, he is an independent spirit that doesn’t want to just follow the rules.
And prisoners around him notice this. One of them, an older, bigger prisoner known as Dragline (George Kennedy) challenges him at first to a fistfight outside the prison. He ends up beating Luke without letting Luke hardly get a punch in. But that doesn’t stop Luke from constantly getting back up once he’s been knocked down. And this says a lot about Luke’s character as well: he’ll never be beat. He’ll never be broken. He’ll just keep getting up.
Eventually, this has a positive effect on pretty much every prisoner. Luke stays positive, and so does everyone around him. One day as they do yardwork around the prison and down the street, he starts working faster and faster. Soon, all the prisoners feel his spirit and start working faster too—and they end up finishing two hours early. Later on, Dragline, who has become friends with Luke now, bets that Luke can eat fifty eggs in an hour. Luke does it—all fifty in one hour, even though near the end he gets so full that they have to lay him on the table and feed him the eggs.
But soon, the rules and regulations of the prison start making an attempt to break Luke after all. When Luke’s mother dies, the prison guards keep him in solitary confinement—“the box”, as they call it—so that he won’t think about escaping. When he is finally let out after a few days, Luke decides to escape the prison for good. Friends help him get out, but he is eventually caught and brought back to camp. And this is where the captain utters the immortal line:
CAPTAIN: What we've got here is... failure to communicate. Some men you just can't reach. So you get what we had here last week, which is the way he wants it... well, he gets it. I don't like it any more than you men.
But Luke soon escapes a second time, seemingly for good, until he is brought back once again, this time really beaten up and constantly bossed around by the guards. One night, after being forced to dig what looks like two graves in the ground, he cries out for mercy, that “he’ll get his mind right”. And after a while, he seems like the guards’ pet, doing little chores for them and looking like his mind really isn’t right after all. That is, until he sneaks into one of the guard’s trucks with Dragline and drives away.
That night, Dragline and Luke split up, and Luke finds himself in a church, where he prays for the first time in a while.
LUKE: Hey, Old Man. You home tonight? Can You spare a minute? It’s about time we had a little talk. …I know I got no call to ask for much... but even so, You've got to admit You ain't dealt me no cards in a long time. When does it end? What do You got in mind for me? What do I do now? Right. All right. On my knees, asking. (silence) …Yeah, that’s what I thought.
But just then, Dragline runs in and police cars surround the church. Luke chuckles as Dragline explains that if Luke comes out peacefully, the guards won’t hurt him. But Luke comes to the door and says: “What we got here is a failure to communicate!” Right before being shot in the chest by the head guard. He presumably dies on the way to the hospital, but Dragline is brought back to the prison and is able to tell the prisoners about Luke one last time: “He’s a natural-born world-shaker.”
I guess there are a few different directions you could take this movie in terms of its spiritual content: about Luke’s nonconformity, about the guard’s mercy, and so on. But I was really struck by the idea of Luke acting as sort of an example of Christ in the prison. Seriously, even watch the scene where he finishes the egg-eating contest, and tell me he doesn’t look like Jesus on the cross, in nothing but a white rag, arms stretched out. But in a way, Luke inspires the other prisoners to live in a new way the same way Jesus taught His disciples to love others in a new way.
Think about it: in His time, Jesus’ teaching seemed really out of place. For years, Jews have learned to hate their enemies, that they should take revenge, “an eye for an eye”. But then Jesus, the New Covenant, comes along and tells them that Grace has come. That doesn’t mean the law is changed: it means that now the law is becoming a matter of the heart, that it’s more than just ideas that people like the Pharisees teach and then do the opposite.
And in Matthew 23, Jesus condemns the Pharisees and hypocrites like them: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” (23:25-26) Jesus taught that following the law is more than just a commandment: it’s something that involves your heart and your soul, something that you have to believe in wholeheartedly.
My prayer for you today is that you will see Jesus’ commandments and His life as a whole not as just a belief, but as a lifestyle that involves your whole being. Only then can we show the true love of God.