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Cool Hand Luke is a 1967 American drama film starring Paul Newman and directed by Stuart Rosenberg. The screenplay was adapted by Donn Pearce and Frank Pierson from the novel by Pearce. The film features George Kennedy, Strother Martin, J.D. Cannon, and Morgan Woodward.

Newman stars in the title role as Luke, a prisoner in a Floridamarker prison camp who refuses to submit to the system. His inability to conform drives the plot of the movie, in the same vein as characters such as Winston Smith from Nineteen Eighty-Four, Randle McMurphy from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Number Six from the British television series The Prisoner (aired during the same year) and Jake Holman in The Sand Pebbles.

In 2005, the United States Library of Congress deemed Cool Hand Luke to be "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry.


Luke Jackson (Paul Newman) is arrested for cutting the heads off parking meters one drunken night. He is sentenced to two years in prison and sent to a Florida prison camp, run by the sadistic Captain (Strother Martin). Luke is revealed to be a decorated veteran, and is initially known to the other prisoners as "War-Hero Luke." Luke fails to observe the established pecking order among the prisoners, and quickly runs afoul of the prisoners' de facto leader, Dragline (George Kennedy). The pair spar with the prisoners and guards watching, and although Luke is severely outmatched by the larger Dragline, he repeatedly refuses to stay down and eventually Dragline refuses to fight further; Luke suffers a beating but wins the grudging respect of the prison population. Later, Luke wins a card game on a bluff with a worthless hand; Luke comments that "sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand," and Dragline gives him the nickname "Cool Hand Luke."

After a visit from his mother he becomes more optimistic about his situation. Despite the brutal conditions within the camp, including hard physical labor and extended time in "the box", a harsh solitary confinement used to punish disobedient prisoners, Luke demonstrates an unquenchable spirit and the other prisoners begin to idolize him, particularly after he wins a spur-of-the moment bet that he can eat fifty hard-boiled eggs in one hour.

Luke continually circumvents the authority of the Captain and the prison-guard "bosses", and his sense of humor and independence in the face of incarceration prove contagious and inspiring to the other prisoners. This struggle for influence comes to a head when Luke leads the work crew in a seemingly-impossible effort to complete a road-paving job in a single day, in defiance of convention and expectations. Luke becomes recognized as a trouble-maker by the prison authorities.

News of his mother's death reaches Luke and the Captain locks him in the box instead of sending him to work, anticipating that Luke might attempt escape in order to attend his mother's funeral. Luke becomes depressed and determined to escape. After an initial escape attempt under the cover of a Fourth of July celebration, he is recaptured by local police and fitted with leg irons to prevent further attempts. Luke immediately makes another escape, this time visiting a nearby house where he uses an axe to remove his chain and pepper to throw off the prison's tracking dogs. This escape is successful but short-lived. While free, Luke mails the prisoners a magazine that includes a photograph of him with two beautiful women, which is received with awe and delight, but he is soon recaptured, beaten, and returned to the prison camp. When he regains consciousness, Luke is annoyed by the prisoners' fawning and lashes out, revealing that the picture was a fake. At first the other prisoners are angry, but when, after a long stay in the box, Luke is forced to eat a giant pile of rice, the other prisoners help him finish.

Luke's escapades seal him as a legendary figure in the eyes of the prisoners, but the Captain sets out to break Luke's spirit. As punishment for his escape, he is required to dig a large hole in the prison camp yard, then fill it in and repeat the process, and is mercilessly beaten as his comrades look on with horror. Finally, an exhausted Luke collapses in his hole and begs the bosses for mercy and not to be hit again, as the other prisoners watch from the windows of the bunk house. Luke is hauled back into the bunk house, where he struggles to his bed alone. Ashamed by Luke's capitulation to the Captain, the prisoners begin to lose their idealized image of Luke. One prisoner pulls out the magazine with Luke's picture in it and tears it up.

Though seemingly broken in spirit, Luke takes one last stab at freedom when he gets the chance to steal the guards' truck. Dragline jumps in the truck with Luke and they drive off. They travel until, at night, near a church, Luke tells Dragline that they should split up. Saddened and regretful, Dragline thanks Luke as they part and Luke enters the church. Moments later, police cars arrive outside. Dragline re-enters and tells Luke that he made a deal with the bosses that they won't hurt them if they surrender peacefully. Luke, knowing better, moves to an open window and is immediately shot in the neck. A distraught Dragline hauls him outside. Luke is placed in a car with orders to take him to the prison hospital (rather than the much closer public hospital).

Later, Dragline and the other prisoners reminisce about Luke, who in death has regained all the adulation he lost among the prisoners and become a mythic hero. Dragline describes Luke's unique smile as scenes of Luke's escapades flash across the screen. The final image is the now-repaired picture of Luke and the two women, before the screen fades to black.


Cast notes:
  • Although she played Luke's mother, Jo Van Fleet was only eleven years older than Paul Newman.


The movie's anti-establishment message fit well with the mood of the 1960s. It became a critical and financial success. All of the forty-three reviewers on gave the movie a positive review.

Awards and honors

Cool Hand Luke won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (George Kennedy), and was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role (Paul Newman), Best Music, Original Music Score and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

In 2003, AFI's 100 Years... 100 Heroes and Villains rated Luke Jackson as the number 30 greatest hero in American Cinema, and four years later, AFI's 100 Years... 100 Cheers: America's Most Inspiring Movies rated Cool Hand Luke number 71.

Cool Hand Luke was included in the United States National Film Registry in 2005.

Famous line

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. And I don't like it any more than you men.

The line is frequently taken as "What we've got here is a failure to communicate." Both are correct. This line is heard twice in the film, first in its entirety, with no "a", by the Captain (Strother Martin), and later on the first line with an "a", said by Luke.

The quote was listed at number 11 on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 most memorable movie lines.

This line was also used in Guns'N Roses song "Civil War"


The original music for Cool Hand Luke was composed by Lalo Schifrin. An edited version of the musical cue from the Tar Sequence has been used for many years as the news music package on several television stations' news programs around the world, mostly those owned and operated by ABC in the United Statesmarker; this cue was first used in on WABC-TVmarker in New Yorkmarker for their Eyewitness News newscast and was subsequently imported to ABC's other television properties. Nine Network's Nine News & WIN Television's WIN News in Australia and NBN Television's NBN News in Northern NSW still uses an edited version of the music. Although the music originated from this film, to this day many people associate the tune with television news as opposed to the film itself. Frank Gari, who created many News Music packages recorded an arrangement of the Tar Sequence in 1983 as News Series 2000.

In popular culture

Title / general
  • A 1980, Saturday Night Live hosted by Strother Martin ran a skit, "Camp Beau Soleil", which was a parody of Cool Hand Luke. Strother Martin reprised his role as "Le Capitan" in a prison-like summer camp where children were sent to learn French. In the skit he repeated his famous line as "What we got here is failure to communicate bilingually."
  • The climactic scene where Luke escapes the chain gang by hijacking a dump truck and then raising the truck bed to deflect bullets shot at him by the guards is almost identical to the escape scene in the movie I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang ( )
  • The Rugrats episode "Cool Hand Angelica" is a parody of the film.
  • In an episode of Corner Gas, Hank mentions the movie and trys to eat 60 eggs.
  • In Ed, Edd, n Eddy, in one episode, Eddy hatches a plot to escape from a day of school, with Ed, Edd, Jonny, and Plank. The title of the episode was "Cool Hand Ed".
  • In the television show Moonlighting, there is a two part episode in season four titled "Cool Hand Dave". The Bruce Willis character David Addison is imprisoned in a case of mistaken identity.
  • In the movie Serendipity, Jonathan names Cool Hand Luke his favorite movie, astonished that Sara had never seen it.
  • In the early days of the now classic professional wrestling character "Stone Cold" Steve Austin, the wrestler declared "I feel like Cool Hand Luke," referring to his inability to "work within the system." The promo included Austin's first physical assault of WWE owner Vince McMahon, setting Austin's incredibly popular anti-authority character which continues to this day.
  • In the movie Life, Claude is involved in a one sided fight with Goldmouth. This results in Claude being rendered unconscious and carried off on the shoulders of his opponent much like the fight between Luke and Dragline. Claude’s several failed attempts are also reminiscence to Luke’s constant escapes.
  • In the end credits of Beethoven's Big Break , there is a fake movie poster of Cool Hand Luke shown with a Beethoven twist. It is called Drool Hand Luke in the movie credits.
  • In the popular TV-show Gilmore Girls, the character Luke Danes was repeatedly called Cool Hand Luke in the episode "We got us a Pippi virgin".

Failure to communicate

Reflective sunglasses / the man with no eyes
  • In the comedy series South Park, the episode The Chicken Lover in year 2 has Cartman channeling the 'Man with no eyes' when he becomes a temporary deputy. The closeup of Cartman's face and the immortal phrase "Respect my Authoritah" are clearly an homage to Cool Hand Luke.
  • In O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Sheriff Cooley wears reflective glasses very similar to those worn by Boss Godfrey, and similarly rarely speaks.
  • The music video for Beck's "Where It's At" features an homage to Cool Hand Luke. The video begins with a sweaty prison crew on an empty country road, being watched over by a Boss-like figure wearing reflective sunglasses.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Black Widower", Sideshow Bob is seen picking up garbage on the side of the road while a Boss-like figure watches (in a parody of the shot of the reflective sunglasses) and the movie's music is heard.

Egg eating contest
  • On the MTV series Jackass, Johnny Knoxville holds an egg eating contest in an homage to Cool Hand Luke's infamous scene. His contest, however, ends with all the contestants vomiting.
  • In Reality Bites, Michael (Ben Stiller) compliments Troy (Ethan Hawke) for a line he says in Lelaina's movie ("No one can eat fifty eggs") as if it were by him, and Troy explains that it was a mere quotation from Cool Hand Luke.
  • In the Malcolm in the Middle episode "Traffic Jam", (Season 2, episode 1), Francis is challenged to eat 100 "Quacks", (which are a reference to the marshmallow candy known as Peeps.), spoofing the bet that Luke can not eat 50 eggs.
  • At the end of animé Cowboy Bebop episode "Hard Luck Woman", (Session #24: ハード·ラック·ウーマン), Spike & Jet sit and eat a basket of boiled eggs for dinner, an homage-reference to Cool Hand Luke.
  • In the game Fallout 3, one character sometimes says "Nobody can eat fifty eggs!" while trapped in a Portable Fallout Shelter named "The Box".
  • Shortly after Newman's death on September 26, 2008, the satirical newspaper The Onion featured a photo headline that said "Paul Newman Dies After Consuming 51 Hard-Boiled Eggs."

A night in the box / hole big enough?
  • In The Simpsons episode "The PTA Disbands" the "that's a night in the box" line is spoofed by Jasper.
  • The Reverend Horton Heat has a song/album entitled "Spend a Night in the Box" referencing punishments for various infractions in the prison camp.
  • In the Seinfeld episode "The Little Jerry", George asks the women's prison warden if she had ever "put anybody in the box" before.
  • The 2000 comedy film Screwed makes reference to the film after Willard pops off at Miss Crock's thoughtless Christmas gift of a minced meat pie. Rusty finds Willard sitting in a dog house outside Miss Crock's mansion where he says "Man, what are you doin'?", to which Willard replies "Miss Crock says I gotta spend a night in the box."
  • The Duckman episode "You've Come a Wrong Way, Baby" includes a scene where the Tobacco CEO threatens that anyone who crosses him will spend a week in The Box. Duckman does, and is crammed in a tiny box about half the size of his body.
  • In the Farscape series, John Crichton says, "hole big enough boss?" referring to the scene in which Luke digs a ditch for the bosses.
  • The Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode Untamed Youth, a movie about a group of teenagers relegated to a cotton-picker job in lieu of jail time, features the riff "Anybody caught misbehaving will spend a night in the box-step".

Plastic Jesus

Other music-related
  • In the song "Rain on the Scarecrow" John Mellencamp sings "Hey calling it your job ol hoss sure dont make it right", paraphrasing what Luke says to the guard who puts him in the box.
  • A live version of the theme song "Down Here on the Ground" is performed on George Benson's Weekend in L.A. ( ).
  • The Australian band You Am I have a song called "Cool Hand Luke" on their Coprolalia EP.
  • The second album by hip-hop artist Tone Lōc was named Cool Hand Lōc, referencing the film.
  • The grunge band Paw includes references to the movie in the song "Dragline".


  1. Florida Department of Corrections 1966-1969 timeline
  2. listen

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